Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot lives in Chicago, where she teaches writing courses and works in the Writing Center at North Park University.

Works (and Cities) in Progress

This piece was first published last April.

In early March, Tom Brokaw picked Reading, Pennsylvania as “emblematic of many struggling cities.” In his short profile, students at Reading High School say they can’t wait to get out of this city. For many years, people in the suburbs and surrounding farmland told me they didn’t want to go in. Reading has been a city to drive around at all costs, and a place to dream of moving away from.

Slowly but vitally, crime rates have declined in Reading and new commerce has sprung up. Revitalization still looms a long way off, and a staggering unemployment rate, homelessness, and poverty hover close. But if Reading really functions as a symbol of other U.S. cities’ struggles, then maybe closely examining one crucial element of what makes people in Reading proud of their community and hopeful about its future will illuminate what can help elsewhere.

The GoggleWorks, the biggest arts center of its kind in the nation, calls Reading home. As a renovated factory building set in the heart of Reading, it sparks hope that the arts can jolt life into the city.

The campus is roomy enough to feel peaceful. Well-lit hallways look into 34 active studios. It’s also busy enough to feel energized.  Seniors, high schoolers, professionals, and elementary kids walk the halls. High school girls chat in Spanish and laugh. Artists help each other haul sculptures into one of the GoggleWorks’s five galleries.

Anyone can tour the galleries for free. Visitors can wander up to the second and third-floor studios to view works completed and works-in-progress and leave notes for artists or talk to them while they work. Community members can take classes at the GoggleWorks, and students can receive need-based scholarships. Several artists, like artists-in-residence and husband and wife Jesse Walp (woodworking) and Bethany Krull (ceramics), have visited city classrooms.  About his recent classroom visit, Walp said he wanted the third-graders to know “…there are other options in life.  There are artistic ways to live.”

Factory exterior prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

With such freedom of movement into and out of the GoggleWorks, the community has embraced the GoggleWorks as theirs. Barbara Thun, a GoggleWorks artist who says she wants viewers of her paintings to feel both an experience of beauty and a sense of unease, says, “Already our neighborhood community takes pride in this place.”  Thun, who is also on the GoggleWorks’s board, points to a lack of vandalism around the art center’s six-building campus as evidence that the community feels ownership.

How Does It Start?

So let’s say you live in an economically-gasping city like Reading and believe art fosters collaboration across the many lines that divide people, and you believe that this kind of collaboration infuses life into neglected urban areas.  How do you start a center for the arts in a city like Reading?

The GoggleWorks began when Albert Boscov took a walk.

Boscov visited Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (that’s right, “Christmas City“) during a First Friday event. Boscov happens to be Reading’s best-known businessman; his family started a chain of department stores. As he found himself among thousands who thronged downtown Bethlehem’s streets, he considered how similar Bethlehem’s history was to Reading’s and envisioned Reading infused with this kind of energy.

Second floor space prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

Boscov knew the arts had been instrutmental in reeling Bethlehem back from the edge when it lost its industrial base. (Remember Billy Joel’s song “Allentown“?  Remember the line about Bethlehem Steel: “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time”?) Boscov contacted Diane LaBelle, an architect who had just left her job as director of Bethlehem’s Banana Factory arts and cultural center to ponder what to do next in life. When Boscov approached her with the idea for a Reading-based arts center, it was clear that this was what to do next.

The idea for the GoggleWorks took shape.  The city donated a recently-closed factory that had manufactured safety glasses.  As LaBelle toured its interior, she says, “It was so filled with light… I could see artists working.”

Boscov gathered a small cohort who asked LaBelle for a concept design.  She capitalized on the light that had captivated her and left the factory’s aesthetic intact. Indeed, encountering old boilers, heavy steal doors, and defunct circuit-breaker boxes, GoggleWorks visitors can still imagine themselves spelunking through an old factory.

The whole process, from the day LaBelle first saw the building to the day the GoggleWorks celebrated its opening, took three years.  LaBelle’s concept crossed the governor’s desk in 2004, and he approved it and granted $3 million for the project that same year.  Meanwhile, Boscov’s cohort ran a capital campaign to raise additional funds and LaBelle met with “anybody that would meet with me” to ask them: what does Reading need from an arts campus?  It turned out that people from over 500 organizations wanted to meet with her.  Above all, as GoggleWorks’s soon-to-be founding director, LaBelle wanted to fill in the gaps and provide what the city’s arts organizations needed, “but not be competitive with what was already there.”

Why Art?

Photo: Sean Talbot

But what does all this mean for the community? Why does an arts center bode good things for Reading?

When Barbara Thun describes changes the GoggleWorks art center has made in Reading, she talks about the parents of Berks Ballet Academy students.  Many of the students lived outside the city and their families weren’t used to driving downtown.  At first, when Berks Ballet moved into the GoggleWorks, parents picking up their kids would idle their cars as close to the door as possible, wait for the young ballerinas to hop in, and whisk them away.  As suburban parents grew more and more comfortable with the GoggleWorks and Reading, this changed.  Barbara Thun would see kids with dance gear sitting outside, laughing and playing while waiting for their parents.

More foot traffic into and around the GoggleWorks means more people on Reading’s streets and that, says Thun, “equals less crime.”  The GoggleWorks’s large parking lot casts light on the surrounding sidewalks and helps make the city safer at night.

More people crossing into downtown Reading means the city is now part of a bigger relationship.  Ideas, cultures, and talents that had stayed isolated as suburban, rural, and urban people kept their distance from each other can now mingle, and that feels safer and more comfortable each time it happens.

Not only does a site for the arts make art experiential, it means that artists are seen as essential to the community—risk-takers and beautifiers who will care for the community’s good– instead of being thrust to its outskirts.  For a long time, many Berks County artists felt alienated from their community. GoggleWorks artist and board member Suzanne Fellows, creator of a blogging paper doll named Eudora Clutey,  has lived in the area for 27 years.  She told me, “I felt like a total outsider until I found this place… Now that I’m at the GoggleWorks, I don’t want to leave.”

There must be something about the process of making art that is hopeful, too. To peer into artists’ studios is to see that beauty and wonder emerge through slow, sometimes mysterious and labored accretion. Watching ordinary people discipline themselves to bring forth artifacts is indicative is good evidence of a city still “in progress.”


Creating a Place like the GoggleWorks

What could brand new or concept-stage community arts centers learn from the GoggleWorks?  What attitudes and plans make the GoggleWorks function well in downtown Reading?  Here’s what the GoggleWorks artists, staff, and founding director think.

1. The community has to want it.

It can’t be one person’s brainchild or something only artists want.  The community needs to grab onto the idea, help to make it happen, and be aware that the art center is there.  You “can’t just put art there and hope people will see it,” says Kristin Kramer, GoggleWorks’s Director of Marketing and Development. From the get-go, the GoggleWorks designated a “special events committee” of people who knew Reading well and could organize events designed for neighborhood appeal.

2. The community has to feel like it’s theirs.

Providing scholarships so that everyone can come is essential, and so is refusing to have a territorial attitude toward the arts center.

3. Artists have to feel like it’s theirs.

Many GoggleWorks artists serve as board members, and all of the third-floor artists gather for Friday lunches, which have resulted in new ideas for exhibits.

4. People need to feel safe.

Keeping the GoggleWorks well-lit and ensuring plenty of foot-traffic has made even those who are cautious about Reading feel at ease here.

5. Other organizations can contribute.

Renting two floors to “arts partners,” arts-oriented companies and non-profits encourages cooperation, a central hub for the arts, and even a solution to economic challenges non-profits and small organizations face.

6. Artists can volunteer their time.

The GoggleWorks requires artists to contribute six hours per month of volunteer time, which keeps rent low and allows the GoggleWorks offer even more to the community.

7. Variety helps.

The GoggleWorks houses a theater that shows independent films and facilities for glassblowing, photography, woodworking, ceramics,  jewelry-making, and more. Variety draws a greater range of artists, lets artists learn from each other, and invites community members with a broad range of interests to take classes and learn new skills.

This Baffled Dance: Amy Leach’s “Things That Are”

“Things That Are” by Amy Leach.
Buy it on Amazon.

A natural history museum doles out a thick dose of awe. The Texas horned lizard shoots blood from its eyes! There are deer as tiny as terriers! And who would have guessed at so many variations of horns? Swirling and branching and ridging and spiking and looping… mahogany, gold, white, freckled, variegated! Seeing animals all together—the twist and freckle and sinew and beak of them all, the whimsy and boldness and joy of them—glory becomes a weight and a befuddlement. The breadth and pattern of nature engulfs you.

“We baffled creatures,” Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “are immersed in an overwhelming truth. What is plainly before our eyes we know only in glimpses and through disciplined attention.” This baffled dance within overwhelming reality is the experience of the museum visitor beside mounted grizzly bears, the experience of the zoologist or  botanist who intently studies her corner of wonder, and the experience of the reader who picks up a copy of the new essay collection Things That Are, a debut from award-winning essayist Amy Leach.

In this series of short essays accompanied by Nate Christopherson‘s whimsical black ink illustrations, Leach unhinges and unsettles the natural world just enough so her readers will discipline their attention. It’s not an easy book because it doesn’t easily reveal how a reader might decipher its meaning; it whirls up and down registers, jokes and teases, and demands that the reader keep up. That’s part of the fun.

At first, the natural world as Leach describes it is hard to recognize. She inspects pandas, peas, goats, and galaxies so closely that the effect is like macro photography. Looking at the familiar up close destabilizes it. Leach begins an essay on jellyfish and sea cucumbers not by describing a jellyfish or the pain of its sting, but by looking closely at bones: their usefulness, the burden of responsibility borne by skeletal creatures, and concludes, “even great paroxysms of responsibility have little effect when you are made of mucus.” Thus, with one attribute of the creature (its lack of bones) examined closely, the jellyfish shines newer.

As she explores each newly magical piece of earth and heaven, Leach reaches for sources beyond science and into mythology, archaic taxonomy, biblical imagery, and philosophy. Part of the fun here is that she entertains each source with equal credulity. In her essay on Sirens, the mythical creatures are as real as the Fry County Emergency Warning sirens that also figure in the essay:

“Contemplating the sandy bones of their latest audience, the sirens would vow to sing less devastatingly next time… but as soon as they sensed someone sailing by, their vows evaporated: they would start feeling ecstatic; their voices would swell, and deepen, and soar, and then it was all over. They sang deliriously, mercilessly, driving the hearers wild, drawing their haunted hearts into the sea.”

The rule seems to be that if a mythological character gets pulled into this book’s orbit, it becomes, like lilies and warblers, simply one of the things that are. And her believing tone draws our heads into a confused sea, creating the child’s insecurity about the lines between when something’s true and when the adults are only joshing you. Leach’s credulity embraces the mystery of existence, and humans’ ways of making sense of it, and deepens our childlike wonder at the world.

But all is not well in this world of wonder. At the natural history museum, you may be dismayed to think of the great safaris of the past that felled the rhinos and gazelles now locked behind glass, and may find troubling photos of birds whose bellies are full of wires they thought were worms. In Things That Are, likewise, there are essays that change from wonder to worry, as in the satirical “Memorandum to the Animals.” Here, Leach imagines that the animals, who know that their ancestors boarded Noah’s ark to to escape the flood, need to hear the message that “that was a sentimental era and God was a sentimental fellow,” and, “this time around we are in charge:  producing our own cataclysm, designing our own boat, making our own guest list, which does not include Every Living Thing.” Mentioning environmental crisis, this staple of political debate, could have drowned this book; Leach’s imagination and subtlety, however, guide her deftly past the propaganda. Leach’s book becomes an ark where she gathers living things to celebrate, at least, if not to save.

She gathers them because she believes the living things have something to teach us. Wendell Berry once watched a heron somersault in mid-air and took it as evidence that the world is brim-full of joy; he wrote that we need to “know the world… learn what is good for it…cooperate in its process, and yield to its limits.”  Leach’s gripping picture of what it means to know the world presents earth as an oracle, able to teach:

“The earth itself may be our authority, what communications we receive from it as cryptic and ravishing as the ravings of Pythia: a frog or a fox flying by, Texas mud babies in the bog, Chinese lantern plants, chrome yellow foam resembling scrambled eggs but itinerant and not good with toast.  Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?”

Whether she means that earth reveals the divine or embodies its own divinity, it’s clear Leach sets herself up as a kind of priestess.  Her study of nature yields lessons about our hearts, our relationships, and ourselves. She does this subtly, bringing to mind Fabio Morabito’s essay collection Toolbox. Both Leach and Morabito use description to build their lessons. Morabito, for instance, describes file and sandpaper as metaphors for the way people either grate on each other or sand down each others’ rough edges; Leach examines the difference between dust on earth and dust in space, concluding that space flatters “faint diffuse spreading things” while earth’s light flatters organized and sculpted things—a metaphor for the creative process.

The creative process that shaped Things That Are has left us with a book that invites us to take a wilderness hike in its poetic pages.  It’s a steep climb, with a guide who wittingly disorients you, and is more interested in the pudgy caterpillars than the view from the pinnacle.  Steady yourself as you begin, for the world may not look the same to your eager eyes afterward.

Things That Are.  Milkweed Editions.

Out of My Shell

As she moves through the thin carpet of the five-gallon bucket’s leaves, the painted turtle sounds like she has a peg-leg: rustling, scraping, clunking. A sour reptile smell hangs over the bucket.  My hands smell sour when I pick the turtle up.  I hold her by her sides, my palm becoming a second shell, watching her shut the gates of herself and become both living thing and stone.  If I steady my hand, the barricades will open.  Her feet will strike and tear the air.  Her wrinkled neck will wobble forth. If I lower my arm slowly enough, her claws will tear the soft banks of my parents’ pond, and she will be on her way without one social backward glance. She’s coming out of her shell, but only long enough to carry herself, shell and all, away from me.

I had acquaintance with turtles like this one throughout my long childhood.  About once a year, a box turtle or painted turtle would find its way out of a muddy hermitage and become the captive of my siblings, my friends, and me.  About that same time in my life, more than once a year, someone would congratulate me on “really coming out of my shell.” And this was the biggest compliment.  I was becoming new.  Leaving the sour old self behind.

This year my turtle-trapping days are far behind me, but I can still feel longing pull at my skin. Really coming out of my shell.  I still want to.  But this year, I found my metaphor challenged: “Some animals naturally carry their shelter everywhere they go, and… some humans are the same.”  Maybe Susan Cain, who wrote those lines in her celebrated new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has known the loneliness of letting a turtle go back into the wild.  Maybe she has known the longing to step out of the thick shell and into a garment much lighter and more iridescent.

But a turtle’s shell is not quickly discarded.  One year, my dad found a turtle that had survived a mower blade.  One of its scutes had been torn off, like a mosaic fallen from a wall.  We kept the turtle in a terrarium and fed it ground beef, raw. We called the vet.  We bought a liquid antiseptic called New Skin and sprayed the turtle’s shell. The scute grew back. We returned the turtle to the banks of the pond and it rustled away without a backward glance.

That year, whenever I laughed till I giggled or introduced myself to a stranger or ran wild and jumped in puddles, my friends said it was good to see me coming out of my shell.  But I wanted to live to see the day when I could start to do this forever, when words would burst out of my mouth as if they were already written and all I had to do was voice them, and when I could sustain this exuberance without also craving silence. Coming out of my shell? I didn’t want a shell at all.

A cicada bursts its old skin and climbs out of a thin brown shell.  I must have been six the first time I found one.  Its needle legs pricked my skin.  I investigated it in awe.  I must have held out my insistent arm and asked, “Is it real?” I had never seen something so whole and so wholly abandoned. I didn’t even know, then, about the bright and glowing greenness bordering the cicada’s new wings.

Now I know, and now I know how much I want to be converted.  To be all at once what this world privileges.  To speak glamorous falsehood with confidence.  To fill, just fill, the silence.  To stand underneath the mist of that antiseptic and get a new skin. To be a creature not of mud and carapace, but of glowing green flight and inescapable whistle and roar.

But then I think of how it was a mower blade that created the need for the turtle’s new skin.  Just as surely, culture’s brash blade, lopping us down to uniformity,  creates the need for the introvert to repent of her solitude and cry “I once was shy, but now I’m loud!” and give up forever the hermitage beside quiet waters. But I won’t.  Some conversions are myths. This is not the right newness.  I need my hermitage, unglamorous as it is, as much as the turtle needs hers.  And I’ll take it.

photo by:

I Have No Opinion

How much time does it take to write articles that engage mainstream contemporary culture in order to both praise and refine that culture?

I’m typing into a box right now, WordPress widgets all around. On my right is a big blue “Submit for Review” button that blinks sleepily each time the post auto-saves. How easy it can be to click that button and send these thoughts on their way.

But how long should it take? Can engaging culture ever be rushed, and what are the consequences? Is it ever okay to refrain from voicing opinions about controversial topics, or is there a mandate that demands that culture-making, culture-engaging people engage all culture all the time?

The writing I’m most proud of flows from convictions, and the true convictions I hold have cost something. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I would refer to “my convictions” flippantly, and usually in the negative. I had “convictions,” and I had them against things. At least, I thought I did. What I generally meant was that I had a gut feeling, or had looked up a word in the slim concordance in the back of my Bible, or that my parents’ actions and beliefs, which actually took them time and pain and fiery trials to solidify, would do for me in a pinch. The lesson of late college and early adulthood was that “convictions” won so cheaply won’t be there when you need them most.

True convictions are worn into my being through habits of mind, heart, and body. Actions I’ve taken, both noble and regrettable, engrave them there. Conversations I’ve had with people who think differently challenge me indirectly or head-on to refine these beliefs. The words I let live in my brain can reinforce beliefs and, if well-chosen, separate truth from lies. The lesson of my later twenties has been that a true conviction has the power to startle me, as if I stepped on the ground expecting moss only to find sharp rock underneath.

I doubt I’m alone in the slow way my convictions accrue. So, what does this mean for those who are committed to engaging and creating culture?

I’ve been avoiding this fact for several paragraphs, but I’ll say it now. It was the recent Jared C. Wilson internet brouhaha (his post has since been taken down) that inspired these thoughts. Wilson clearly wanted to engage mainstream culture, or engage his Christian readers in thoughtful response to mainstream culture, by commenting on the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey on his blog. To comment on why the novel’s depictions of sadomasochistic sex have been accepted enough to make the novel a best-seller, Jared Wilson brought Christian author Douglas Wilson’s controversial words into the discussion. And at that point, the focus permanently shifted from engaging the culture to furiously, explosively–and quite justifiably– debating about Doug and Jared Wilson’s views on authority, submission, misogyny, marital sex, and gender roles.

As an attempt at engaging culture, Wilson’s post didn’t work. That part of his intent got lost in the explosion. Because not all attempts at engaging culture work, it makes me wonder if sometimes writers rush to publish, to engage, to be timely. Reflecting on a bestseller list should take a lot of time, a lot of knowledge, a lot of familiarity with books, reviews, and discussions that have come before, and a careful consideration of the source material that is best suited to dialoguing with the culture. I know there is at least one “timely” article I wrote without knowing enough about an author’s oeuvre; I hope to write a follow-up article soon.

A culture-making, culture-engaging community can and should be one in which writers and artists take the time necessary to reflect, carefully and in the context of a diverse community, for years if necessary, and then speak. We should surround ourselves with people whose differing convictions and opinions encourage a creative kind of conflict. We can create a community in which the people who mentor these artists can ask the crucial questions to draw out reflection and test depth of knowledge.

To do that, we need to cultivate a quiet spirit. William Pannapacker of Hope College praised the strength of introverts in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. There, he partially paraphrased Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writing that excluding the reserved and cautious introvert has “led to”–among other things–“a culture of shallow thinking.”

We can draw on the strengths introverts’ reserve and caution bring. As artists, writers, and talkers, we can create a community that thinks deeply and carefully about culture, refusing to rush to comment on all culture all the time and refusing to spawn a sub-culture of shallow or hasty thinking.

To further avoid shallow and hasty thinking, perhaps we should specialize even more. I love the advice Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff gives to “those who would be Christian scholars” and consider it applicable to many thoughtful writers. Wolterstorff advocates patience in scholarship, saying that for years or maybe even decades a Christian scholar might “feel in his bones that some part of his discipline rubs against the grain of his Christian conviction” but not be able to pinpoint the conflict. And then after that, it might be years or decades before he can offer any alternative.

If it might take years to have that much of a handle on a subject area, let’s get started. Let’s find ways to reflect on what we do know, and encourage others to reflect, to taste ideas, to test convictions, and to be okay with maybe having no opinion at all for a while.

Adapting to Adaptations

In 1909, the very first American full-length motion picture lit the screen. The film was part of that beloved and contested genre, the literary adaptation.  It was the first of many film versions of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Did it follow the plot scene by scene?  Did it capture the true essence of Hugo’s original?  Reviewers didn’t seem to care.  In fact, for one reviewer, it was the dog and monkey circus that came on first, rather than the French masterpiece, that was the true “treat of the season.”  Reviewers with longer attention spans praised the film as “one of the greatest motion pictures ever exhibited.” In 1909, that wasn’t saying much, and reviewers were more taken with measuring the astonishing length of the film itself–2,600 feet– than measuring the quality of the content those 2,600 feet contained.

As the technical aspects began to lose their novelty, reviewers have demanded much more from adaptations.   But just how recently have reviewers begun to care about faithfulness to a book’s plot and spirit?  Does the recent trend of quick best-seller to blockbuster turn-around have anything to do with how films are critically received?  Is this speed a new trend?

To investigate this, I turned to one of my favorite pursuits—besides reading novels and viewing adaptations—and dug through New York Times archives, selecting several adaptations that have appeared in the decades since Les Misérables.

It turns out faithfulness to the book emerged very quickly as a yardstick for how well a film succeeded.  Just a decade after Vitagraph’s Les

Mis, Mary Pickford’s studio bought the rights to Jean Webster’s popular serial novel Daddy Long Legs. The book was so popular that even with the seven-year gap between its publication and adaptation, reviewers still expected that the novel’s fans would pack the house.  Of those fans, “no one,” wrote one reviewer, “was disappointed with ‘Daddy Long Legs’ on the screen.”  Faithful adaptation had clearly been added as an evaluative standard.

In the thirties, faithfulness remained a standard, and an additional underline was added: a quick bestseller to blockbuster turn-around demands even greater faithfulness.  It’s possible that Daddy Long Legs’ audience was easy to please because the plot had become fuzzy in the seven-year gap, but in the thirties, the president of Universal Films attempted something much more daring.  Carl Laemmle decided Universal would adapt, film and release a movie based on a novel that had appeared in print just one year earlier.   All Quiet on the Western Front hit bookstores in 1929 and theaters in 1930.

Laemmle even threw out common sense in his quest for fidelity to the written page.  By 1930, it was common sense that without a love story, you’d lack an audience, too.  But no, Laemmle told Erich Maria Remarque he’d preserve the story: no love interest, and no softening of its depiction of war.

Critics and the academy rewarded this.  Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times, “It seems as though the very impressions written in ink by Herr Remarque had become animated on the screen.”

But why would people who had read All Quiet on the Western Front page by page just a year or even a few months earlier want to see the book projected, scene by scene, onto the screen?  And why do today’s readers who have just finished The Hunger Games or The Help or Twilight want to devote another several hours of their lives to watching it?

Maybe we flock to these adaptations for just the reason Hall had described in 1930: we want to see our impressions of the book animated on the screen.  In viewing an adaptation, we join a more communal imagination.  If a film animates the book in ways similar to how we’ve imagined it, we feel, somehow, rewarded by the community.  We feel like our vision of the book has been validated.

This animation of the book can also thicken our grasp on the story.  Reading the book and then racing to the theater is a way of doubling our memory and, perhaps, increasing our understanding.

Whatever the reasons, audiences flocked to other bestseller adaptations later in the decade.  Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller became a film just three years after its publication.  The book was so famously popular that reviewer Frank S. Nugent wrote that “fidelity” to the book took great courage, yet “so great a hold has Miss Mitchell on her public, it might have taken more courage still to have changed a line or scene of it,” and thus Gone with the Wind achieved “a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.”

Does the fact that Shakespeare and Dickens were long in their graves by the time Hollywood got to their stories have to do with this?  Had reviewers already seen so many productions of The Merchant of Venice and David Copperfield that they were glad when directors combined their own imaginations with the plots?  Does a bestseller demand faithfulness, while a classic, well-known work demands reinvention?

This would seem counter-intuitive.  Do American critics want bestsellers, which don’t always stand the test of time, to be faithfully reproduced as quickly as possible, but allow classic works to withstand drastic re-tellings?  It depends how drastic, and how well the re-telling succeeds.  A.O. Scott certainly didn’t let 2009’s superhero thug version of Sherlock Holmes off the hook.

And speedy adaptation in itself is not the key ingredient.  When director Herbert Brenon tried his hand at The Great Gatsby just one year after its publication, reviews were flat.  Though the film didn’t veer far from the plot, it needed “more imaginative direction” and neither Brenon “nor the players have succeeded in developing the characters.”  Of course, Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller when Fitzgerald published it, nor was it critically acclaimed.  Maybe this meant there wasn’t much incentive to capture Fitzgerald’s original intent.

The passage of twenty-four years increased Gatsby‘s popularity and accolades, but didn’t help its adaptations any.  This rule didn’t hold true for adaptations in general, though: an adaptation based on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men won best picture in 1949.  Yet Gatsby still flopped that year.  Bosley Crowther wrote that “Most of the tragic implications and bitter ironies of Mr. Fitzgerald’s work have gone by the board.”  Most crushing of all, it was “a dutiful plotting of the novel without the substance of life that made it stick.”

Perhaps Gatsby films are ill-fated.  Even a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola didn’t satisfy critics of the 1974 film.  Reviewer Vincent Canby slammed it as “lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”  Will the upcoming Gatsby, slated for December, fare better, or should directors leave the great American novel in peace?

Whether adaptations result in successes or flops, Hollywood’s zeal to change bestsellers into box office gold as quickly as possible– before our amnesiac society moves on–is decades old.  For bestsellers, the working formula seems to have been: convert them to faithful screenplays as soon as possible, capturing both the scenes and the essence.  That way, audiences join a community and see their imagination reinforced on screen, or have the chance to talk about the popular plot even if they haven’t seen the film.

For classics, critics and audiences grant a little more leeway, ready to see what hasn’t been done before. But if three film versions of a famous novel don’t work, maybe now is not the time to cast Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.  Well, unless Baz Luhrmann can work in a hilarious Jack Russell and chimp.  Then, maybe.

Truth, Like Poetry

Here I am, writer at the desk, remembering. My memory summons up a homesick afternoon that I must write about, and now the picture appears. There I am, twenty-three, stretched out on the cool hardwood floor of my bedroom like a sad snow angel, listening to…

Eels. Electro-Shock Blues. I’m sure of it. I was a hip, sad indie snow angel at twenty-three, wasn’t I? And wouldn’t the title Electro-Shock Blues perfectly convey to the reader just how distraught I felt that afternoon?

Ah, writer. How quickly memory and wishes intertwine. Remember closely, for a moment. Admit that in fall 2005, when you were twenty-three, you had only ever heard one Eels song. Recall that when you wanted a soundtrack for your sad mood, what you reached for then would most certainly have been Counting Crows: I need a phone call. I need a raincoat. I need.

So, here I am, rewriting. Much as I wish I had listened to something with a little more cultural cache, I must present the truth. And, in this case, the truth illustrates what I was like at that time in my life much more deftly than my superimposed hipness does.

When I write Creative Nonfiction, I must write what is, to the best of my knowledge, true–or signal to the reader that I’m taking liberties. But the complexity of what truth means in this genre is inherent even in the name itself. Tell someone your primary genre is Creative Nonfiction and you’ve primed them for a joke. You’re sure to meet a smirk and the question– “Isn’t that what all journalism is? Aren’t journalists creative with their ‘facts’?” Even though the name itself seems to call “nonfiction” into question, what is creative about Creative Nonfiction is the merger of truth with imagination, fact with story-telling, the objective with the personal.

There have been at least two currents in Creative Nonfiction for a very long time. One fork of the river bends toward writing emotionally true or artistically rich prose, even if this relies more on imagination than fact.  The other bends toward what is factual, verifiable, and personally honest, while still craving emotional authenticity and artistic innovation.

Scandals have plagued those who identify with the first trend. Several memoirs, like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and a best-selling journalistic autobiography, Three Cups of Tea, have turned out to include troubling fabrications.

For those who–like me–identify with the second current, complexities abound. For one thing, this is a genre mainly interested in the past, and exploring one’s own past honestly is difficult even for those who want to present it without adding or embellishing. It’s obvious that memory tricks and eludes us; what makes memory even more slippery is that the more we think about a specific past event, the less reliable our memory of it becomes. For memoirists, who must access the same memory again and again in order to compose, the first experience of that event slips further away with every writing session.

For another thing, one of the gifts that postmodernism has given us has been to show us the need to be humble about our perspective. What we perceive has been colored by our human fallibility.

And yet, these complexities can be handled with integrity because when the reader cracks open a creative nonfiction book or scrolls down the page of a creative nonfiction essay, he or she expects that memory is an imperfect faculty. The reader also expects the author to use it honestly, without knowingly adding or distorting. The reader expects that even the most ho-hum nonfiction will also be shaped by its perspective.  In the most creative works, facts will be shaped in innovative ways, but in works that commit to truth, the facts will simultaneously shape the narrative.

When the line between truth and imagination blurs, the writer does the reader and the genre a great service by signalling that the conventions have shifted. Peter Trachtenberg is wonderful here:

My position is that if the facts are your own, you have a license to play with them in various ways, as long as you give the reader some indication of what you’re doing. Dogs signal that they’re about to play by smacking the ground with their forepaws. I’m only suggesting that memoirists do what dogs do. Otherwise somebody may get bitten. Or mistake a nip for a bite.

Of course, clamping down on genre boundaries may seem too much like the landlord who pounds on the apartment door just when the party is getting interesting. John D’Agata, whose lyric essays I love and have referenced elsewhere, has recently come under fire for writing a book that sounds like journalism, yet is intentionally loose with facts. D’Agata said in a PRI interview, “I think that we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder. So philosophically my issue is that we’re not allowing an entire genre – nonfiction – to have that kind of a relationship with the reader. And that’s for me, as an artist, that’s problematic.”

Yet truth and honesty can be limits that aid, rather than prohibit, creativity.

Consider this snippet from a recent Wired article:

One of the many paradoxes of human creativity is that it seems to benefit from constraints. Although we imagine the imagination as requiring total freedom, the reality of the creative process is that it’s often entangled with strict conventions and formal requirements…. symphonies have four movements; plays have five acts…. The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice.

As David Foster Wallace noted in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, when one writes nonfiction, one is immersed in an “abyss of Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience.” Could writers in this genre hone the noise into intelligibility through constraining themselves to what is true? Could close adherence to facts, honest memory, and reader-signalling be constraints that benefit this genre’s creativity?

Such honing not only creates greater trust between the reader and writer, but should allow the genre to flourish so that truth, like form poetry, will give writers just the limits necessary to write their best nonfiction. The narrow doorway opens onto a large and freeing vista where we can be overcome by what is solidly there in the world.

If we think we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder, maybe we our concept of truth is too small. Let’s revive the possibility that the truth is larger and more fascinating than we have imagined. Let’s consider that it might leave us in awe, or horror, or even wonder of the things we write and read.

Getting Personal

I cartwheel backwards through years, to the porch step where I am sitting beside a friend on a chilly October evening seven years ago. I try to breathe this cold past self alive, but her fingers and feet stay blue and rigid. I know why. I don’t really want her flitting and dancing and shouting in the fullness of true being.

If she were anyone but me, I could be kind to her. Laugh at the way she dispenses clichés like they are her mother’s truest whisper. Hug her for thinking she’s the only one who’s ever liked a Woody Allen film. Hold her by both wrists to keep her from covering her eyes in despair. Laugh, hold, chide, rejoice in, bear with in love.

But, poor thing, she is a former me. Awkward, unlearned, guilt-filled. I wonder some days, do I want to write her back to life again?

I have been time-traveling to revise a personal essay. The friend I sat beside that October would eventually become my husband. That evening was the night I fell in love.  I try to listen in to what we are saying, but embarrassment keeps distorting truth.

I have been writing and revising this essay for five years. The structure is complete and complicated—subheadings, themes that need to resonate across sections, family history, research—but I sense that it is like a fully furnished apartment the writer’s past self has absented.

How can I welcome her back? How does anyone find the courage? How are there shelves of collections of personal essays, shelves of memoirs? Another glass of wine or whisky, another bite of doughy humility.

Another candle raised to see by, another nimble and light step backward. Joan Didion steps into an airport terminal in her best dress. This is the classic tale: Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” The woman looking backward. The closed chapter. How does Didion do it? Summon the old self without bitterness? Could I learn?

"Goodbye to All That" Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post and later in & Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“Goodbye to All That” is a two-track discovery. As the older self, in narrating, glides backward, the younger self, in aging throughout the essay, inches forward.

The sense of discovery is one trick; here’s another: Didion recaptures her early-twenties self fully. When she’s afraid to call the front desk to warm up her freezing hotel room, this character seems helpless. When she refuses to ask her father for money, and decides instead to fight for her own survival, she feels plucky. Each story illustrates how the same person can embody opposite traits.

While creating this multifaceted character, the narrator acknowledges the twenty-two-year-old’s naiveté and is clearly sometimes ashamed of her reckless feeling that life in New York in one’s early-twenties didn’t count. But her young strength resounds, too. She’s able to proof magazines on two or three hours of sleep. She is full of visions about how to survive.

Rather than being dismayed at the awkward, unlearned past, Didion represents the “mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty three”: how new and singular all experience feels. Meanwhile, the early-twenties Didion moves forward, every day closer to becoming the narrator’s current self, the one who knows, to whom things occur.

And so, dear twenty-three-year-old, sitting on the porch steps in the autumn chill, here I come. Accept  me, as I accept you, under the gaze of grace, and let’s puzzle this life out.

Not Home for the Holidays

I wanted to travel to Pennsylvania to be with my family this Christmas. My family always swaddles the holiday thick with traditions, and I missed those. On Christmas Eve, my mom crushes candy canes for homemade peppermint stick ice cream. That night, my dad sometimes builds a fire on the far side of their pond. The family creaks through frosty grass and takes seats around the fire, reading Luke’s gospel and imagining what it would have been like to “keep watch over… flocks at night.”  They attempt “Away in a Manger,” starting too low, their voices by the end sounding like chairs rasping across a floor. On Christmas morning, they always have cinnamon rolls and coffee while opening stocking stuffers. They open presents, and then eat waffles.

I wanted to be in Florida with my in-laws for the new year, which is tradition, too. This year, we had a new niece down there we hadn’t met yet. We kept browsing for cheap tickets.

I have spent several Christmases marooned in Chicago. This year, with gas prices and unemployment both so high, I suspect that more people were separated from their families over the holidays.  Indeed, Laura Donovan wrote about this trend in her article “A Very Skype-y Thanksgiving.” Some probably considered themselves plucked from the fires of dysfunction.  Googling “not going home for the holidays,” an abundance of articles about surviving holidays at home cropped up. Others no doubt felt exiled and, even as adults, a tad homesick. It still just feels like Christmas is where Mom is. There’s no way around it.

How can we exiles handle the distance?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I spent a lot of time Grinching. I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. Not even an artificial or Charlie Brown tree. No wreaths or greenery or cranberry popcorn chains. No sharp fir smell in our apartment. No special candles or Advent calendars. No Christmas music. This was partly because I’m a teacher and it was the end-of-semester crunch. But also, it was a classic disappointment pirouette: one begins the pirouette by caring deeply, and then feels a slight turn when disappointment hits, and then concludes the circle by resenting the very thing once held so dear. To wit: “I would love to be home for Christmas,” “I can’t go home,” “Christmas is lame.”

Eventually, I began to take heart, though. Christmas, I realized, isn’t primarily about family. Christmas is a holiday in the root sense of the word.  Paraphrasing the OED here, the old English root, háligdæg, always meant consecrated day or religious festival, and the definition that meant “vacation” or “a day off” was always tied to the concept of the day’s holiness. The Immortal and Invisible becoming flesh and dwelling among us: this is what Christians consecrate on this day.

I began to realize that family togetherness can symbolize the incarnation for Christians. We reenact some aspects of the holy drama when we dwell with one another. Family togetherness is not the whole point of Christmas, so I could be of good cheer because of that, because it meant I could still consecrate the day in a whole and full-hearted way. Family togetherness is, however, a great symbol for Christ coming to his own, so enjoying and remembering family was still something I wished to pursue somehow.

Even though family togetherness–mingled voices, rumpled Christmas-morning hair, arms touching while sitting four on a couch–couldn’t happen on Christmas, I discovered a few ways to enjoy presence despite that.

If it was the incarnation that was really moving me to celebrate Christmas, I wanted to remember Christ’s birth in a way that involved both flesh and spirit.

First of all, I wanted to sing. “Music is about as physical as it gets,” Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies. “Your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it sometimes lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.” Music can use the body to bring about the mind and spirit’s change, so instead of Grinching, I went to our church’s Christmas service and belted out carols. I sang “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” while cooking. I hummed along with Neil Young’s version of “What Child Is This?” on Christmas at the Ranch, one of the few Christmas albums we own.

I didn’t go out and buy a Christmas tree (I think in Chicago they cost about as much as my month’s rent), but I did inspire sense of sight and smell by lighting a Christmas candle, displaying Christmas cards, and arranging some ornaments on a bookshelf. It was enough to remind me of the season’s purpose, so it worked.

From this refocused core, I wanted to let my family know that I wished I could be with them. I called them and Skyped with them. I sent them some Orange-flavored coffee from Chicago’s own Orange restaurant and they drank some for Christmas breakfast. I gave them some homemade cranberry applesauce and it became a side-dish for their Christmas dinner. I like the idea that something of substance was there with them, something to sustain the flesh.

It also seemed to make sense that I would be present with the people who were here, either with other people who are in Chicago this Christmas, or just with my husband. For Christmas breakfast, we made crepes. For Christmas dinner, we created the best homemade pizzas imaginable. It was an unconventional Christmas dinner, but why not?  It’s my husband’s favorite meal, and making even classier varieties than usual made the day special.

I wanted to be in Pennsylvania for Christmas. I wanted to be in Florida for New Year’s Day. A few days before Christmas, my in-laws told us to go ahead and buy tickets, even if we couldn’t find a great deal. I got to hear my six-month old niece laugh, and all season long it felt good truly to be where I was, and truly to remember the presence of God, who has come so close.

Books to Read In a Cabin in the Woods

This piece was originally published in June 2009.

Growing up, my family and I vacationed in an Upstate New York cabin. A lake spread out, cold and tranquil, just across a gravel road. Hiking trails looped through the woods, a nature center offered pamphlets and kayaks, and our neighbors let us borrow their canoe. Did I visit the nature center to learn about the flora and fauna? No. Did I water ski? Not unless wheedled into it. Did I hike trails? Borrow the canoe? Maybe once or twice. How did I amuse myself on our wonderfully nature-y vacations? I brought a stack of books, sat in the damp, dark cabin and read.

Having forfeited pleasures of nature for worlds of fiction and creative nonfiction, I am here to recommend three books that are perfect to pack if you’re planning a mountain- or lake-side vacation this autumn. They are not cutting-edge; rather, they are books I am recommending because the forest setting will amplify their worth.


3. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.

Why it’s good: One of the intriguing things about small-town life is that places have layers and layers of stories. If a visitor asks why a mom-and-pop store is sitting vacant, she may find it used to be the hub of the town, but the family suffered a tragedy, mom-and-pop split up, and another family tried to start a new store there but no one came. Richard Russo captures this layered aspect of small town life perfectly, setting much of Empire Falls in the Empire Grill, a diner that Miles Roby, a divorced man in his forties, wants to sell but keeps managing at the demand of Francine Whiting, who owns most of the town. The stories of those who frequent the diner spin out from the setting, leading to compelling character studies and page-turning action.

Why it’s even better in a cabin in the woods: No doubt the cabin is near some small town or other, and Russo will get you thinking about the stories that fill the diners, gas stations, schools, and taverns.

2. Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman.

Why it’s good: Munro creates characters who live and breathe. In them, you may recognize parts of yourself or true, deep aspects of people you know. Munro lets characters develop slowly and richly and lets plots resolve in a measured and satisfying way, the way a simmering sauce will suddenly reach its best flavor. In this collection, the resolutions are still measured and satisfying, yet more jolting and revealing than usual, especially in “Rich as Stink,” “Save the Reaper,” and the title story.

Why it’s even better in a cabin in the woods: Munro sets many of these characters in small towns, forests, and vacation spots in Canada, and many developments happen specifically because characters are away from home. Also, since they are short stories, they are easy to read in one afternoon, and there are good stopping points in case someone cajoles you into water skiing.

1. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Why it’s good: Not only is this a page-turner, but Truman Capote invented a genre while he was writing. Amazing.

Why it’s even better in a cabin in the woods: No doubt many folks dusted this off when the film Capote came out. It’s intensely disturbing that these crimes were random, springing from misinformation about the profit the murderers would reap. But the most terrifying thing about this nonfiction novel is its reminder that the safest, most unlikely place can become a setting for gruesome killings. If you haven’t read this in an isolated setting, this book hasn’t had its full effect.

So, here’s to an autumnof great books, a dash of nature, and safety and serenity the woods.

A Trail of Belongings

May 1, 2010.

In between grading a tower of research papers and jogging through Chicago parks, I begin to help my husband pack our stuff.  We’re not sure when we’ll see most of it again. We plan to live with my parents in Pennsylvania for at least a year. Into newspaper and bubble wrap go my favorite coffee mugs, our wedding pictures, and our eccentric decorations — like the Toucan Sam we keep on our windowsill and the cylindrical sculpture, something like a disfigured Tin Man, that my husband found on eBay by searching for “weird metal thing.”

What will it be like to live without our stuff, I wonder. My sister, who has been living with her stuff in storage for almost a year, says she doesn’t miss it at all.

Memorial Day Weekend, 2010.

The brown velour couch and love seat that were partly bought with our wedding money won’t fit up the stairs and through the narrow hallways of my parents’ house. It’d be a shame to put good couches like these into storage, though, so my dad initiates us into country life by strapping the couches to his backhoe and using the backhoe to lift the couches through our upstairs window. This actually works.

With couches, a coffee table, some bookshelves, a desk, and a few decorations, we create a living room in what used to be my sister’s bedroom. We have to turn sideways to get through the doorway because the arms of the couch and love seat almost touch each other.

My childhood bedroom becomes our bedroom. It’s not a bad little suite. We stow three-quarters of our stuff in my parents’ barn, attic, basement, and closets. My mom boxes some of her own kitchenware to clear pantry shelves for me. How did all of this fit into a one-bedroom Chicago apartment? How, in the scant years of living on our own and in three years of marriage, had we accumulated so much? Did we really need it all?

March 21, 2011.

My parents take a week-long trip overseas. Seizing the chance to entertain guests, we invite some new friends to dinner. I make a point to use our plates from the pantry, but as we’re sitting in my parents’ living room, I notice our friends looking up at the quilts and grapevine wreaths that adorn the walls, the warm colonial colors that characterize the curtains and furniture, and the history and Christian living books that line the shelves.

I’ve often made a game of trying to guess people’s interests by looking at their stuff. Our friends would know a lot about my parents’ interests from glancing around the living room, and they would learn more than most people know about how I was raised, but could they really get to know us without seeing the “weird metal thing” or having French Press coffee in one of my favorite mugs, or browsing our bookshelves?

Should this trouble me? Why can’t I meet a new friend in a brick-walled coffee shop and have her know me as well as if I invited her home? Or why wouldn’t it seem as bonding to invite that new friend to an unfurnished apartment, order pizza, and just talk? Is this just another way that consumerism has seeped into me, making me think that the way my accessories sculpt my surroundings offers the best means of knowing my true self?

Of course I am more than what I own. Of course one day what I own will be irrelevant. Of course there are people who, out of poverty, thrift, sacred vows, or minimalism, own only necessities. Those people often divulge more of their souls because their selves are what they are able to share.

But we are body as well as spirit, and a body likes a couch. If you are my friend or neighbor, I would like it to be my couch.


May 2011—August 2011.

I discover there’s a chance to return to Chicago to teach. Nearly simultaneously, a friend writes to say that they’ll be subletting their place for September. We decide to return to the city and sublet their place. We’ll leave our stuff in Pennsylvania — pretty much all that we don’t need to wear, listen to, teach with, or communicate through — until October, and we’ll stay with many generous friends until the sublet begins.

Downsizing, and then downsizing again. It’s like the process my maternal grandparents followed as they aged. Between my grandfather’s New England practicality and my grandmother’s compulsive generosity, they never collected much. If you opened a closet door, you could actually see everything the closet contained. But they still had to downsize when they sold their house and moved into a retirement home, and several years later my widowed grandmother had to store, sell, or give away almost everything else when she moved into a hospital-room-sized assisted living apartment.

Maybe it’s good to act out that process early in life.

September 2011.

Our sublet begins. We stay in our friends’ furnished apartment. I find their belongings oddly comforting: their artwork, furniture, serving dishes, even their houseplants. They’ve welcomed us to share this space with them many times before; we’ve even shared Thanksgiving dinners with them among these furnishings. It is not home, but it still feels welcoming.


October 7, 2011.

My dad and brother maneuver the couches back the way they came, backhoe and all.

October 10-14, 2011.

We get our stuff back. As I write this, most of it towers around me in boxes. Even as I’ve begun unpacking some of it, I feel detached. I’d expected my heart to cartwheel when I unwrapped my KitchenAid or curtains or picture frames, but no, the heart’s calm. I feel no strong claim to any of these things I am unpacking. Maybe that’s because I haven’t shared them yet.

Ultimate Liberty, Ultimate Fun

Later this month I will pay a visit to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. It holds nine floors of books, with one whole floor devoted to literature. I’ll have to restrain myself from adding thousands of titles to my to-read list. This confronts me with something that faces every art aficionado eventually: Art takes more time than I have. I will never read all these books, and it’s the same with my own writing–the projects in my head vastly outnumber the actual hours I can spend on them.

The sentiment is an old one. Hippocrates said, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Longfellow translated this, “Art is long, time is fleeting.” Some artists, like Grace Paley in a Paris Review interview, take this to mean that art is not the only thing they want to give their time to. Others take it to mean “life is short, but art endures.” Taking the translations together, a quandary arises: Art’s endurance makes it seem worthy of life’s time, but life is short and life is more than art.

Photo: David B. Thomas

Ron Thomas has been producing and recording original jazz and classical music since the 60s.  This enables him to look back over a strong musical legacy and forward to work ahead, and to comment on the relationship between art and time.

In terms of work already accomplished, Thomas has released eleven albums. If you begin to talk shop with him, you’ll discover he knew John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1964, when Stockhausen was Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas studied with him (or, as he puts it, “became glue on Stockhausen”).  Thomas teaches piano and composition with “a full, full heart,” he says. “It’s full-throated teaching.” He writes essays on aesthetics, musical theory, teaching, and more. If you visit him, I promise you won’t leave without a new book or photocopy in hand, fodder for new art.

His music is at once ethereal and comforting.  It delves into imaginative, cerebral themes—Blues for Zarathustra is the title of his 2008 collaboration with Paul Klinefelter, and 2003’s Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus explores David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

In thinking of work ahead, Bartόk’s life and music have been on Thomas’s mind, and he hopes this will inspire new music drawn from the new experiences this stage in his life is presenting.

Pacing and Discipline

Working with an art form for several decades has given him a good sense of pacing. “I’ve never thought of composing as something I have to do every day,” he tells me over one of his four or five cups of coffee for the day. Instead, he laughs, “My craft is all designed for this total freedom that I seem to need.”

He doesn’t force himself to compose for long swaths of time every day, nor even necessarily every day. His creative routine is much more exuberant than that.  He believes that even though it may often make the artist sweat, his artistic process needs to bend away from “negative stress” and instead capture “ultimate liberty and ultimate fun.”

The one rule he does set for himself is not to end a work session with something questionable.  He has to reach the point where he can pick up from where he left off.  When he writes something good, though, he says to himself, “That’s it for the day,” and then, he says, “I go and jump around the room.  There’s only so much creativity I have in me. I don’t want to drain it dry.”

In writing classes, my professors always told aspiring writers, “Write every day.”   They advised this, I’m sure, because once we’d left the rigor of academic deadlines, who knows what non-artistic deadlines would swallow our days whole?

“But do you want to write every day?” Thomas asks me.  He has a good ear for artistic anxiety.

“Partly,” I say, “I enjoy giving myself this gift of time, and partly, I feel like I have to do this if I want to be a good writer.”

“I would drop the one that says ‘I must do this every day if I am going to be a good writer.’”

Photo: David B. Thomas

When it comes to being disciplined as an artist, Ron Thomas remembers that “it’s a discipline of the imagination,” and he leaves room for discovery.  His musical craft is “all about spontaneity. I want my music to be totally fresh. Maybe ‘alive’ is a better word.”

He believes that work born of surprise and joy is the ars longa, the work that endures.

Time and Detachment

This kind of art may be spontaneous, but it takes a great deal of freedom and space to cultivate, so that even when an artist is not making art, art might still be in the making. “You need to digest things,” says Thomas. Whenever he says “you need to,” his tone holds recommendation, more like let yourself do this.

Taking time to digest life and to let other art forms sink in means cultivating some detachment from the artistic work.  Feeling time pressure can push artists to compose too frequently, at a faster pace than new inspiration actually comes.  Thomas relates the story of painter Joan Mirό standing in front of his canvas for hours on end as idea after idea would come.  Mirό would stand and the ideas would flow, but he would not paint. When he’d accrued several really good ideas, then he would begin to paint them. “You should reject some things,” Thomas advises.

Similarly, Picasso’s pattern, says Thomas, “if a painting resisted completion because of some undetectable formal flaw, was to find the wonderful thing in that work and then destroy it.”  This would yield a breakthrough, “and the final form would come successfully: the one wonderful thing to which he was too emotionally attached” was setting the whole piece off balance.   People asked Picasso, “But what happens to the wonderful thing?” And Picasso would answer, “It comes back.”  Thomas  repeats, “It comes back.”

This holds true for Thomas’s own work. He has stumbled across fragmentary work he’d composed and abandoned fifteen years ago and been able to incorporate it. This perspective frees him to compose and reject, knowing that his process is fluid.

Competition and Hurry

His process not only banishes critics but also takes a gracious and realistic approach to competitors. Competition can easily add a sense of hurry and negative stress to the artistic process. He remembers his father saying that an artist’s only competition is with himself or herself.

“If I thought too much about Stravinsky and Miles Davis, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How could you possibly be in competition with them? It’s ridiculous!”

As a teacher, too, he dismisses thoughts of competition, favoring instead the saying, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”

The Sound of Time and the Voice of the Artist

Even as he discusses his process, Thomas keeps perspective: what works for him won’t work for everyone. The discipline of art, he says, is not universal.  “Unilateral rules are counter-productive.  I have tricks to keep myself from thinking too much about the seriousness of what I’m doing so I don’t get too nervous about it, but you have to select and reject the tricks you will use. As long as it’s legal, and as long as it works for you.”

Thomas urges artists to find their own voices among the clamor of critics and voices that tell them what they “have” to do as artists.  What works for one may not work for another.  It’s true, too, that the voices that remind artists about time and tasks to be accomplished can become part of the chorus of critics.  They smack of the practical yet disciplinary reminders “Be back by midnight” or “Hurry up, you’ll be late.”  Hippocrates himself can thus become no more than a disgruntled adult, saying, “Kid, you haven’t got all day.”

So, if it helps you, listen to the tock of clock-hands or the screech of clockwork gears.  From this sound, find focus.  Hear, too, the tumble of future piano keys.  Trust that even though life is fleeting, the days allotted are enough, and in them, find space to enjoy the freedom and fun of the art that has been given to you.

Choose Your Words

One of the most striking tiny details in Madeleine L’Engle’s bracing and beautiful memoir, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, is L’Engle’s habit of swimming for half an hour before breakfast while internally reciting an “alphabet” of verses:

The movement of the body through water helps mind and heart to work together . . . It is a good way of timing my swimming and by holding on to the great affirmations of the Psalms, of Coverdale and Cranmer, of John Donne and Henry Vaughan and Thomas Browne, I am sustained by the deep rhythm of their faith (169).

As she swam, L’Engle deliberately chose some of the words that would become part of her and would sustain her during the months her husband was dying of bladder cancer.

Slicing through a watery expanse. Sustained. Mind sharing cardiac rhythms. This is how many advocates of memorizing poetry describe their pursuit. “Between the covers of any decent anthology,” writes Jim Holt, whose mental anthology spans from Chaucer to present, “you have an entire sea to swim in.” Essayist Emily Gould speaks of “allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats.” More starkly, poet Mary Karr writes, “In memorizing the poems I loved, I ‘ate’ them . . . I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you.”

In memorizing poetry, the words enter through eye or ear and become so intimate they are almost part of your cells. And the incredible thing is, when memorizing poetry, you get to choose which words become part of you.

How often does that get to happen?

Most of the words pinging around my brain got there by accident. There’s a Snack for That . . . If You’ve Been Seriously Injured . . . Can You Hear Me Now? . . . Everywhere You Look, There’s a Heart, There’s a Heart, There’s a Hand to Hold on To . . . These words have become like static that obscures words and meanings instead of enhancing them. Reading, and getting deliberately-chosen words into my head, is a way of reclaiming parts of my mind. A memorized line snaps me to attention, and then quiets me as I give the line my undivided thoughts. It’s a way of decluttering.

Each line of a poem is a mystery, a puzzle for the mind to solve. Good poems are mysteries so absorbing that only by carrying them around with me does the mystery begin to make sense. They give rest from the petty or profound life problems that often knot my brain, offering exuberant mysteries and calming rhythms. On the other hand, when the static foists itself to the fore, the only puzzle it gives me is “How’m I gonna get enough money to buy that?”

When lines of poems grab my thoughts, they make the world in front of me seem a little more graceful. It’s kind of like the thread of my thought doubles — something else, something good, a companion’s reminder, entwines my simple observation.

Photo: Sean Talbot

But, OK. Before my praises of poetry memorization get too lofty, I should let you know how much I suck at it.

When I was young, I was — like most kids — a walking tape recorder. My parents took care that the words that became part of me would be positive and poetic. I had awful dreams of rats and tarantulas (that, in hindsight, make me think that if those were my worst fears I had a pretty easy childhood). I’d wake up panting and see yellow teeth in the street lights’ variegated shadows and a hairy thorax in the ceiling’s cracks. My mother comforted me by helping me memorize Psalm 121, “He who watches over you will not slumber” and Psalm 139, “The darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines as the day.” Like L’Engle, she organized an alphabet of verses I could say to myself.

My memorization skills skedaddled long ago. Memorizing poetry or Scripture seems to require a silent soul, undivided attention, and love of repetition only possible as a child, when things like swinging back and forth for an hour are legitimate pursuits.

Last year, though, that detail in L’Engle’s memoir inspired me to try memorizing again.

So I tried to force-feed myself poetry, one small bite at a time. It was a crashing failure. Learning one small part at a time left things too disjointed. I couldn’t remember how it all worked together. So I gave up. Memorizing poetry was not for me. Not anymore. Face it: My brain just didn’t work that way these days.

But a funny thing happened this spring. I began to notice I was thinking poetry again. The words that were part of me were words that I welcomed.

I would walk in the woods and pass a beech tree. Its bark was smooth silver, its roots plunged into neon moss. And what came to mind was Wendell Berry’s Its roots passing lordly through the Earth.

Or, I would look out past the pond at my parents’ house, and the leaves of the early spring woods would be so thin that light behind them made them glow gold, and I would think sometimes of Frost’s Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold (which of course came to me by way of The Outsiders) and sometimes of Berry’s The woods is shining this morning, delighted that he calls it simply the woods, like my siblings and I always called it, instead of the formidably poetic “Forest.”

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Or, I’d be cutting up a bony chicken, and what would come to mind but Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”?  Their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, which I heard Thomas read aloud on the audio anthology Poetry on Record.

Or, when I’d wake up feeling tumultuous during a year of indecision, lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s desolate sonnets would rise: Call off thoughts awhile . . . leave comfort root-room . . .

Or, I’d hear mourning doves murmur bleakly and mockingbirds recite and think of lines of Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount that compassionate birds’ temporal nesting. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself . . .

The thing is, I’d given up trying to memorize poetry, but I still read it. I taught a poetry unit last year and had students read Donne, Hopkins, Levertov, Milosz, Walcott, Berry, and two Herberts (George and Zbigniew) aloud. I had to read these poems over and over to offer any intelligent comment on them. And in just reading them over and over and again, their phrasing and patterns and rhythms did work the transformation that Holt, Gould, L’Engle, and Karr spoke of.

I won’t force-feed myself spoonfuls of poetry anymore. But I will keep reading poems and Scripture, over and over again ’til the mystery’s in my marrow.

I Try To Keep My Language Classy

Chicago-based indie band Cains & Abels befriends dichotomies.  David Sampson, Josh Ippel,  and Jonathan Dawe forge a lush, engulfing sound, with intricate guitar-and-drum interludes, soothing harmonies, and haunting reverb. Yet the band’s folk influence means many moments stay sparse and echoing, with drums beating as steadily as a distant barn-raising.  It means the lyrics lay bare the writer’s thoughts, Sampson’s lead voice stays raw, and the vocals often craft a call and response.

I wrote about the band just before their first full-length album, Call Me Up, came out in 2009.  Since then, the band has released Call Me Up on vinyl, toured, recorded a Daytrotter session, and released the EP The Price is Right. They’re in the final stages of producing a second full-length album, tentatively titled My Life Is Easy.

Through these milestones, the band has worked closely with friends.  One signed them onto his record label (Positive Beat), others helped book shows, and friend Erik Hall (NOMO, In Tall Buildings) continued as producer. The band’s community experienced a huge change, too—Michelle Vondiziano (keys, cello, vocals) left the band.  She and her husband have a new baby, Inez, who gets a shout-out in the EP.

With all these changes in the past two years, it felt like time to check in with the band again.

Cains and Abels (L- R): Josh Ippel, Jonathan Dawe, David Sampson.

Last time, we talked about your music’s honesty. What have been some recent challenges to this?

David Sampson (bass, vocals): Maybe the hardest part has been watching musicians that I believe are being disingenuous or flip or cute gain big attention and popularity? That’s a deeply honest and ugly answer.

Jonathan Dawe (drums, vocals): I don’t think there’s such a thing as “dishonest” music, broadly speaking. Sure, our music is not Lady Gaga and the lyrics are confessional and drawn from real experience, but was there ever any doubt?

DS: We’re trying to make music that is us first and foremost, and that serves the lyrics in the songs we’ve written. I even try to keep the instruments and sounds we use to a very small number. The three of us are corn-fed flatland dudes. If I sang in a southern accent, it might help people put our music in a category, but it wouldn’t be me.  The way I sing, or the way we play, is undeniably a construct on some level, but I’m trying to make it as true to my background, my experience and my identity as I can.  Neil Young is a total inspiration. A lot of his music is in a country vein, but he’s not putting on a Merle Haggard act to do it.

Josh Ippel (guitar): We’re all influenced to some extent by the sounds we’ve digested over the years and it would be impossible to completely leave that aside when writing songs. We do make a conscious effort not to write any songs that directly nod to a specific genre, though there are certainly recognizable elements.

Do you think of the album as a story?

DS: There are a lot of connections and story elements, but there’s no beginning or end, and I don’t think it would benefit in being thought of that way. The images are all meant to compound and refer to each other.  There are common metaphors in a bunch of the songs. Deer represent people/women, but in more of an empathetic way than birds on Call Me Up. It took me a long time to figure that out. I was just like, “Oh weird, this time I’m writing about women as deer instead of birds.”

JI: It has the character of a film like Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. It’s filled with beautiful, intuitively connected scenes.

The image of roots keeps coming up in this record, too.

JI: They’re the foundation for the life of a tree but they’re also gnarly, twisted and buried in dirt, so there’s a range of meanings they can conjure.

DS: They’re bigger than the rest of the tree, and they’re impossible to get rid of, and that’s the way I think of difficulties in my life, especially difficulty that comes from bad habits and destructive ways of living (like the ones I’m confronted about in “Why Are You Lying to Me”). The roots in “Roots” represent something that has ensnared people in greed since the beginning of civilization. The “branches grow thick and wild” is imagining the manifestation of that tree with money for roots. It grows out of control like a Brothers Grimm tree, dark and twisted and leafless and moaning in the wind. It becomes the trees in the other songs that taunt me and hold me from happiness.

“Roots” reminded me of Johnny Cash’s “Redemption,” and your line “great is thy treachery” sounds like “great is Thy faithfulness.”

DS: This song is a backwards hymn, a song of negative praise to mammon. Instead of “faithfulness,” money’s treachery is never ending. The first line of the song, in that washy intro is, “Oh, for you cannot deny yourself,” which is a reference to a Bible verse: “If we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” Money cannot deny itself, and by very definition brings us misery and strife and death.

“Where Did You Go” has changed since early performances.  Do songs tend to evolve in practice, or live?

DS: Both. Totally both. We work really hard on the songs in practice and do our best to make them finished compositions.  Our songs have usually existed for a year or more when we record them for an album. Practice is where we change things in songs, but live is where we test them out.

JD: Both live performances and the studio experience have made these songs more heavy. “Where Did You Go?” is a good example of this. I didn’t originally like that song much, but now it has more force and rocks harder. I don’t always think that “rocking harder” is synonymous with making a song better, but in that case it is.

The band’s following has expanded.  Has that led to a more complex relationship with listeners?  Do people ask about the lyrics?

DS: More people listen to us now, but I have had only two conversations with people inquiring about lyrics. Either they’re so clear that no one has any questions, or no one cares about the lyrics, or I’m such an intimidating person that they’re all terrified.

Is it strange that people listen to your music without the band being right there getting a sense of audience reaction?

JD: I think a lot about what it’s like to listen to our music on a recording (or live) without being in the band. It’s a perspective I’m jealous of.  Would I like it if I weren’t a part of it?

JI: I’ve always wished I could be in someone else’s brain when they’re at home, cooking dinner and listening to one of our tunes. I guess I’d have to quit the band and get brainwashed to have that sort of experience.

Does the new album work with dichotomies, building on your original concept that each person is both a Cain and an Abel, cruel and kind?

DS: This is the question I had the hardest time with. The most obvious example is in “Where Did You Go,” where I talk about walking north with “peaceful pastures on my left, and howling trucks were on my right.” It’s a reference to “the highway’s right lane stands for grieving and pain / the highway’s left lane stands for rising again” in “Black Black Black” on Call Me Up.

JI: The new songs seem to slide between a disembodied, abstract voice and a grounded, first-person narrative, which fits with the way we deal with concepts like money and survival.

Are dichotomies not up front in your lyrics anymore?

DS: Well, it’s something that I’m always interested in, and it was tough to think about the songs and realize that I didn’t have that theme in there very prominently. In “My Life Is Easy,” I contrast myself with the buck who is shot at. It’s been a popular thing to talk about “white people problems” in the last year, and while I think the concept is a deeply unsettling and decidedly un-funny thing to laugh about, “my life is easy” is talking about that. Compared to an animal being shot at (or an African being shot at in his home), my life is one of a prince. I never lack for comfort. I worry not about eating too little, but about eating too much. I worry most about love. My life is so easy. Beyond that, the dichotomies aren’t too present in the songs. It’s not that I’m not interested in them, but maybe they just didn’t come up?

What’s your take on how you came to use Wesley Willis’s “Vultures” live and on the EP, why you changed his lyric “dead ass” to “body,” and your familiarity with Willis and the original song?

JD: Replacing “dead ass” with “body” is in keeping with David’s approach to lyrics and keeping unnecessary crassness/vulgarities out. I admire him for that and think it’s the right move.

DS: I try to keep my language classy. Talking about damage to “my body” is something that is already in Cains & Abels lyrics, so it seemed to fit. Mark Neigh [a friend who helped with booking and filled a variety of other roles] actually suggested that we cover the song, and I looked up the lyrics and realized it did an amazing job of bridging themes from Call Me Up and the new record, so it made perfect sense to put it on the EP.  I love Wesley Willis. On my first trip to Chicago I spotted a Wesley Willis drawing framed on the back wall of the Burger King on Milwaukee in Wicker Park. It made me love Chicago, to think that a Burger King would mount and display his drawings.

Is the EP a bridge between Call Me Up and My Life is Easy in other ways?

DS: It’s kind of a palette cleanser. There is a slower, more soulful mode on it, as well as a lower-fi sound that allows it to be itself. If you’re following the band release by release, the EP dismisses any expectations of what the next album will be like.

Sean Talbot contributed to this article.

All photos by Maren Celest.

Mattie Ross and the Golden Age of Feminine Aplomb

The magic of the Coen Brothers‘ 2010 True Grit adaptation is that they get 14-year-old female spunk exactly right.  Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) possesses intellect, courage, and idealism that brought to mind Mary Pipher’s 1994 book Reviving Ophelia, which argues that before puberty girls are the most confident humans on the planet. Fourteen is a golden age of feminine aplomb, and Joel and Ethan Coen have a track record of portraying strong women.  From Abby (Frances McDormand), a killer’s lone survivor in Blood Simple (1984), to  Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) in No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens show women who have presence and gravity. Facing nihilistic murderer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who would make her life depend on a coin toss, Carla Jean Moss reasons steadily, “The coin don’t have no say.  It’s just you.”  She is one of the bravest characters in recent cinema.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.

Unlike the two female characters just noted, Mattie Ross begins her story with that standard of the Western genre, a moral mission.  Grown-up Mattie’s voice-over relates a tragedy without quavering.  Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a halfwit outlaw Mattie’s father tried to help, murdered him and fled to the Choctaw Nation.  No one from town pursued him.  The sheriff merely chalked Chaney’s name onto a sprawling list of fugitives.  Mattie’s mother was too weak to put any of the family’s affairs in order.  Mattie depicts her mother as a woman who can “hardly spell cat,” not to mention being “hobbled by grief,” hesitant, and bad at math.  Frank Ross’s murder would have caused hardly a ripple had not his daughter strutted into Fort Smith.

As Mattie barters and reasons, inciting sloths to action and misers to justice, Steinfeld’s performance shows a naïve, honest face trying on adult resolve. Just like she rolls up the sleeves of her father’s wool suit and wears it jauntily, she also wears a resolve she’ll soon grow into more fully.  Yet the resolve she shows from the film’s beginning is nothing to trifle with.  She talks quickly and firmly, looks adults in the eye, knows the law, and drives a hard bargain.  She doesn’t reciprocate when women hug her or consent to have women fuss over her.  Mattie doesn’t flout nineteenth century feminine conventions so much as she just can’t be bothered with them.  Her moral mission is primary; nothing, especially not other people’s expectations, must bar her way.  And thus, she’s known as “a harpy in trousers” who gives “very little sugar with [her] pronouncements,” and has admirable “sand.”

Mattie thinks she’s an able match for the mission conferred on her.  She has the larger-than-life feelings of an adolescent without the discernment experience brings.  She compares a search for a murderer to a coon hunt at which all the campers tell ghost stories.  When she employs the meanest U.S. Marshal–Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)– to chase Tom Chaney down, Mattie figures that his meanness means he has grit and that their mutual bravery makes them equals.

But when the story hits its three-quarter mark, the hunt fits Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s (Matt Damon) assessment precisely: it’s gone from “manhunt” to “debauch.”  If Rooster fits Mattie’s ideal of a man with true grit, what’s he doing sloshing liquor?  Slumping nearly out of his saddle?  Firing a pistol at cornbread?  (Jeff Bridges is fantastic here, becoming even more of a lowlife than The Dude).  Mattie tells LaBoeuf, “I picked the wrong man.”

And so it would seem, except that Carter Burwell’s soundtrack keeps playing that redemptive refrain, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Perhaps something more than Mattie’s own arms sustain her.  “The author of all things watches over me,” she says as she rides off on her mission.  In True Grit, the author of all things works through friendship, through people who can’t quite forget each other.

Around this three-quarter mark, questions of character development rather than the moral mission’s resolution became central to me.  Mary Pipher’s conclusion in Reviving Ophelia is not just that prepubescent girls have grit, but that societal pressure and hormonal upheaval chop vibrant young women into fragmented selves– the socially acceptable woman and the real self.  Pipher quotes Diderot, who said of women, “You all die at 15.”  So the question I wanted answered as I watched Cogburn, Ross, and sometimes LaBoeuf press on across the snowy plains was not will they catch Tom Chaney but will Mattie ‘die’ at 15? Will she become “hobbled” like her mother?

Kathleen Norris writes that “all too often… we find that our journey from girlhood to womanhood is an exile to an ‘alien soil.'”  Norris compares reaching womanhood with the Israelite captivity; women are asked to sing songs and appear happy in a land not their own.  Adult Mattie Ross will find herself on a turf where men rule and act and vote.  I wondered, will she outlast this pressure?

Without giving too much away, I will say it’s unsettling that there’s something witch-like in the closing shot of aged Mattie heading, alone, toward the horizon.  Her silhouette’s a bit like Miss Gulch‘s in the Wizard of Oz.  Her closing narration wrangles with people’s assessments of her, which must have gathered force throughout her life.  “Isn’t she a cranky old maid?” Mattie says people say about her.  In the novel, Charles Portis goes further and Mattie’s closing lines continue, “People love to talk.  They love to slander you if you have any substance.”   Thus, the final shot makes me think Mattie became one of many women slandered for being strong; I grieve because of the unjust loneliness of an outspoken woman.

photo by:

An In-Between Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday about moving.  We know the story.  A hounded religious group seeks a home.  A leaky, broken ship crosses the Atlantic to a cold and rocky thicket that offers the Pilgrims no reprieve.  In William Bradford’s account, the travelers do not give thanks while they are on the Mayflower but fall to their knees as soon as they have “set their feet upon the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”  Then, a year after they leave England, the first harvest comes, thanks to their alliance with the native Wampanoags, and their contentment wells over into feasting as they praise God for their new home.

The holiday, thus, seems to be one for the firmly grounded.  Wine and L-tryptophan befit those who have arrived; the hiker munches gorp and keeps hoofing it.  How does someone keep this feast if her way of life feels temporary?  I mean, where does this leave the feast-goer who is, in a less scurvied way, still on the ship?

Photo by Sean Talbot.

My husband and I have been living in my parents’ house in rural Pennsylvania for the past six months.  It’s beautiful here.  I’d forgotten how the fields glow green this late into autumn.  It’s temporary here, too.  Many of our belongings are a glimmer on an Excel sheet.

I feel uprooted yet fortunate.  We have far more elbow room than the 17th century wayfarers did, yet I do feel like we’re on a ship whose immediate destination is not quite known.  We’ve come to this makeshift apartment to consider what’s next in life.  Being project-oriented, part of me wants to check this stage off the list and move on to whatever is next.  It’s difficult to see that six months of sitting still, working, saving on rent, and pondering is, in itself, a worthy project.

I am among many in my age bracket who are living with parents this year.  For the horde of us in temporary digs, what should Thanksgiving look like?  Thanksgiving is not a holiday to be celebrated thinly.  Whether the cranberry sauce is from Cooks Illustrated or from a can, the holiday is a warm and rosy-cheeked one. Sharing the year’s blessings makes it so.

Living in flux is a difficult gift, yet Thanksgiving draws us to realize the gifts we’ve been given.  Abandoning that “vast and furious ocean” was the Pilgrims’ cause for praise.  Those still in search of a home or destination of our own, feast and celebrate for different reasons.

Photo by Sean Talbot.

We celebrate, perhaps, because living in transit sparks creativity.  In her excellent essay “Moving,” Anne Fadiman quotes an article that praises a pioneer for risking a cross-country move: “Traveling in self-satisfied ruts, seeking sameness, and courting inaction, are conditions to be avoided.”  If we have moved, we are not seeing the same old view anymore, and this changes us.  If the move is temporary, inhabiting a temporary space can free us to test out short term ventures.  This is a perk the Pilgrims didn’t get.  They couldn’t exactly “try out” New England.  For the contemporary nomad, this phase lets one investigate new geographic regions without a down payment and this brings valuable input for the next phase.

Or maybe we celebrate because the temporary space pushes us toward the future, urging us to plan and try and dream in ways we wouldn’t if we felt too comfortably rooted.

We find joy, perhaps, in spending time with a larger family, sharing meals, recipes, short stories, housework, anecdotes, YouTube finds, and favorite films.

Or maybe it’s joy in the routines one establishes in new places.  Anne Fadiman writes that after moving from Manhattan to rural Massachusetts,

Henry and I bicycled to the corner store, which, unlike its SoHo analogue, had signs in the window offering night crawlers and chewing tobacco — but it also had seven brands of ice cream and a luxuriant hawthorn tree out front.  On our fourth visit, Henry settled himself under the hawthorn and said, with a five-year-old’s easily acquired sense of permanency, “This is where we always sit.”

I am thankful for the moments when I  feel like “this is what we always do.”  I always wake up early to write on the Saturdays my husband works.  I always see the sunrise over the SEPTA tracks while I drive down the Turnpike to class.  I always walk to the post office.  We always go to Weaver’s Orchard and buy produce that’s nearly the platonic form of a strawberry, apple, or butterhead lettuce leaf.

So, yes, we are still on the ship.  But even though we aren’t yet at our own home, we truly have a feast.

Dauphin Street

Welcome to Dauphin Street, Philadelphia, where trash bags seal broken car windows and signs say “don’t even think about loitering.”  If you turn onto Broad Street,  you’ll find a store a few blocks up that advertises, “We Ship to Prisons.”  I drive past Dauphin Street a couple of days a week on my way to teach.  Its poverty sobers me.  But I’m also startled by juxtaposition.  I’m looking at a worried man limping along the crosswalk, but also thinking of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…

How many layers a word has!  To some, a dauphin was a nation’s future.  To others, a home; a block to defend; a place to shun once dusk falls.  To another, a kestrel steadied in midair, first-born son of the morning.

Wouldn’t Hopkins, Jesuit priest and innovative poet of the mid 1800s, have loved these layers? He thought and wrote about all that a word encompassed: not just its various definitions, but its sound, its look, its application, and, as he put it, “all the concrete things coming under it.”

He hoarded words like each was an out-of-print LP.  In one early diary, he wrote out: flick… fleck, flake.  Said aloud, this collection rises in tone with each word.  He looked for similarities between sound and meaning– “Flake is a broad and decided fleck,” he wrote.  He positioned words according to their sound: “morning’s minion,” “daylight’s dauphin.”

But after he hoarded, he spent. His opulence stuns: rhymes where no poetic rule requires one, alliteration, assonance, all-out play.  One feels gathered up into the ecstasy of it all and involuntarily begins reading aloud.  “The Windhover,” quoted above, is a symphony of words, complete with a clash of symbols: “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.”

Taken alone, a Hopkins poem leaves a reader woozy.  But what’s really startling about Hopkins’s sensibility is the theory that created it.  Literary critic David Sonstroem wrote in Modern Language Quarterly that Hopkins:

Deals out words according to their sound and then he expects them to turn up in the meaningful pattern that will serve as evidence of an unseen intelligence that is regulating them.  He is…giving God a free hand, so that He can declare Himself.  Chance is not really chance, because it is superintended by God.

A few weeks ago, on my way back from Dauphin Street, I stopped for dinner with a friend who is a ceramic artist and who showed me her latest ceramics.  She held one piece behind her back, then presented it with a flourish.  The bowl she held bore a delicate branch pattern crossing the center.  My friend had been shocked when she pulled it out of the kiln because, unexpectedly, the fired green-white glaze lined the brown branches like snow.

How trusting, to take the art one has shaped and marked and glazed and transfer it to an oven not knowing the result.  And how astonishing to think of Gerard Manley Hopkins creating poetry that left room for macchia–the moment when nature (or in his view, God) takes over the artist’s work so that, spontaneously, it becomes more than what the artist intended.

It’s astonishing because it would be easy for a religious writer to crave control.  For one thing, it’s easy for any writer to grasp for control.  A word’s connotation doesn’t fit the theme?  Nix it!  A character isn’t behaving?  Kill him off! A stanza isn’t flowing right?  Revise, rework, revise! For another thing, it would be easy for someone who believes that an “unseen intelligence” has created a regulated world to believe that the writer must also be the work’s unseen intelligence, regulating and ordering the work intensively.

But Hopkins didn’t buy that. He wanted readers to understand his poems but didn’t believe that, just by creating, an artist became a micro-version of God.  Brad Leithauser notes in his preface to the Hopkins collection Mortal Beauty, God’s Grace that when a friend complained that Hopkins’ poems were too obscure, Hopkins wrote him a letter explaining the poems at length.  This shows that he had fixed meanings in mind.  He didn’t change a jot of the “obscure” poems themselves, though, believing “the only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ.”  No matter a poem’s complexity or eccentricity, that literary critic would decipher it.  And so, the artistic creator could remain a creature.

In my own time, I have found this balance difficult.  A great many authors I love believe that at its core the cosmos is chaotic or absurd.  But if, like Hopkins, one rejects this view, wouldn’t it follow that one’s writing would not be chaotic, that it would be a diorama of an ordered, though broken, world?  And then wouldn’t one’s writing be precise, and mean exactly what the author intends it to mean?  Following Hopkins’s aesthetics, a writer who believes in a meaningful universe would also sense his humble place within it, and know, with pleasure, awe, and playfulness, that good art involves letting go.

I imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins kneeling for final vows and realize that this kind of giving is not so different from firing clay in a kiln.

Banking on Community

In 1959, urban observer, writer, and activist Jane Jacobs visited Boston’s North End.  There, she was amazed that a community many dismissed as too far gone had revitalized without any outside financing or urban planning.  How had the North End built itself into a safe, well-groomed, healthy neighborhood?  Through neighbors voluntarily exchanging skilled work.But that was in the 1950s.  Can the same types of exchanges — where time, not cash, is the currency — still build communities that ought to be?

Members of Pennsylvania’s Phoenixville Area Time Bank say yes, the free exchange of time can create cohesive, trusting, and beautiful neighborhoods, and they have seen it happen.

Time banks build on the age-old concept of swapping, and provide a web-based infrastructure that lets people bank hours instead of money.  Members contribute services like plumbing, tutoring, computer repair, respite care, driving, shopping, and childcare.  Logging service hours into a database means they’ve earned hours to “spend” by having any of the 170 Phoenixville Area Time Bank members provide a service for them.

And an hour means an hour, no matter what hourly rate the work could fetch elsewhere.  “Yes,” says board member Joel Bartlett, “my hour of architectural services is worth a disabled person’s hour of weeding!”  Also, the person served reimburses all expenses so that it is purely a time-for-time exchange.

Phoenixville Area Time Banker Kris Craig. Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

New members receive a list of over 70 suggested services they might contribute or need.  “Exchanges can be as creative as anyone’s imagination,” says Judy Antipin, a Phoenixville Area Time Bank member since 2007.  Judy’s partner Diane recently returned from the hospital and about six PATB members gave her meals and rides and cleaned her house.  Member Richard Liston is banking time dollars to earn help with the fledgling Sphere College, a free college he founded for nontraditional students.  One member banked enough hours to have time dollars pay for a whole wedding.

But more is happening than the exchange of services, members insist.  “The transactional piece is a piece,” says member Carol Meerschaert, who recently discovered PATB on  She pictures a time bank as a small village or an extended family.  Transactions forge trust and inspire responsiveness.  It takes trust to have a stranger pick you up from the airport, but members are accountable to each other.  There is a “kind of reverence we bring to each other,” says coordinator Margo Ketchum.  As people bank their time and meet each other, they begin to care about each other.

This is essential in Phoenixville, a gentrifying borough of 16,000 about 30 miles from Philadelphia, that, like many of Pennsylvania’s former iron towns, went from whirring with industry to decaying economically in the last century.  Like a lucky few, Phoenixville has begun rehabilitating with arts and business.  It features beacons of hipness such as creperies, cafés, bistros, and independent bookstores. Thrilling as these beacons are, changes of this sort have often, across America, turned ugly, territorial, and marginalizing when neighbors do not have each other’s best interests in mind.

PATB was not formed to help Phoenixville navigate its neighborhood renewal, but it does want to support a truly resilient community.  Time banks facilitate this because, as Bartlett puts it, “Exchanges are not exchanges.  They’re connections.”  If members connect with neighbors, they begin to realize what matters to their neighbors.   Meerschaert explains that this means that people care about crime, taxes, school budgets — the things that affect these neighbors whom they now know much better.

What’s remarkable about these connections is that they intentionally enfold

Mary Webb, Margaret Carman, and PATB coordinator Margo Ketchum discuss Phoenixville Area Time Bank’s “2010 Project.” Photo: Charles Bartholomew

vulnerable residents, who often get sidelined or used as leverage during gentrification.  Forty non-profits exist in Phoenixville and provide a spectrum of care for area residents. When Ketchum, her husband Joel Bartlett, and a number of others heard Time Banks USA founder Edgar S. Cahn speak at one of these non-profits, an idea was born for a time bank with a unique niche.

They observed that those who benefited from social service agencies were not encouraged to give back to Phoenixville.  Passive receiving was the usual model.  Those who worked for social service agencies, on the other hand, saw themselves as givers only and had a hard time accepting help.  Many time banks dedicate themselves to a cause, and this would be PATB’s.  For people in the helping professions, says Meerschaert, who is also the marketing and communications director for Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, this was “a way to say ‘I need help’ in a safe environment.”  In 2010, PATB has begun a “2010 Project” to focus even more on serving the disenfranchised, and twenty-five percent of their members are currently convalescent, unemployed, or otherwise vulnerable.

Time Banks level the playing field.  As the PATB vision statement says, they connect unmet needs with personal talents.

A Time Bank Social at Maysie’s Farm, outside Phoenixville. Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Krishna Evans is a vivid example of this.  She had devoted so much energy and money to raising her children that she put off small repairs on her family’s home.  After joining the time bank two months ago, Evans engaged Bartlett to paint her fence and another member to fix “little annoying things around the house.”  Evans had unmet practical needs.  She also has talents that are invaluable to others.  She has a social work background, delights in spending time with seniors, and loves to garden.  So she earns hours by being a resource for the elderly, sharing a knack for gardening, and looking out for seniors’ needs.  Banking these hours leads to more possibilities.  She hopes to take piano lessons from another member.  “I never had the luxury to pay someone to teach me piano,” she says, bright-eyed.  “I’m expanding who I am.”

Time banks are expanding people’s options and Phoenixville’s possibilities.  But what about neighborhoods that do not yet have a time bank of their own?  PATB is currently following two small new time banks in the area and offering the umbrella of their infrastructure.  There are about 50 time banks nationwide and many in the United Kingdom, but for those who are not near one of these, the closest time bank may provide ways to link up with a few people nearby and establish an informal program.

From the Phoenixville group that urges those typically seen as “needy” to contribute, to the Brooklyn HMO that uses time dollars to cut seniors’ hospital bills, to the Oakland, California church that, according to Bartlett, used time dollars to set up a community watch system, time banks solve baffling problems.  Where neighborhood swaps may have happened spontaneously in the past, our culture of structured social networking calls for more coordinated forms of swapping.  And this structure is meeting not just  material needs, but also fundamental, intangible ones.

Dear Memoir

I met your kind in college.  It was in Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. Your pages were musty, your spine well-broken.  Your words engulfed me, lassoed me in the undertow of Jamison’s death-thoughts and hallucinations.  You suited her telling just right.  When I closed the cover I knew Jamison, could feel the tumult of living bipolar and discovering it so late in life.

What happened next?  I did not seek another incarnation of you. Instead, I met your cousins, the Personal Essays.  They were enchanting, always touching my arm and pulling me aside to confide some story well worth my time through its hilarity or gravity.  My favorite of these cousins?  Bernard Cooper‘s “Winner Taking Nothing,” Adam Gopnik‘s “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli,” James Baldwin‘s “Notes of a Native Son,” Joan Didion‘s “Goodbye to All That,” and E.B. White‘s “Once More to the Lake.”

Then your sedate, worldly wise, and pondering cousins came to dinner.  These were the books of Literary Journalism.  How I liked meeting Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains and Old Friends, Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, the nonfiction sections of Joseph Mitchell‘s Up in the Old Hotel, and Anne Fadiman‘s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

Next to these sat their children, sun-burnt and bespectacled.  The Researched Essays.  They brought bug jars, binoculars, and yellowed biographies to the dinner table, and whatever our conversation topic, they had some trivia to toss us, or excused themselves and consulted Britannica.  They were brilliant and conversational; still, I chose favorites–Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small, David Foster Wallace‘s “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” Gay Talese‘s “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed,” and John McPhee‘s “The Search for Marvin Gardens.”

Halfway through dinner, in flowed your niece, the Lyric Essay, with emerald rings on her fingers and hair down to her waist.  I loved Lia Purpura‘s “Glaciology,” John D’Agata‘s “Notes Toward the Making of a Whole Human Being,” and Albert Goldbarth‘s “After Yitzl.”  After dinner, we sat in the guest room and I tried on her rings.

Your relatives were such good company that I forgot about you.  And when I turned back to you, I found we’d grown apart.

One day we grabbed coffee and you talked about yourself for hours.  At first, I was intrigued.  Your tale began with the promise that you’d make it artistic.  Or funny.  Or that if you talked about yourself long enough, we’d find a scrap or two in common.   I left that day thinking what you told me was kind of hollow. Your stories–of an abusive stepfather in Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life, or an impoverished upbringing in upstate New York in Sonja Livingston‘s Ghostbread–were just about you.  They never connected to something larger.

It was like Ander Monson said in Vanishing Point, his book of critical essays:

We can… fault the assumption that individual experience–sans connection to something larger, beauty or social action, for instance–is in itself interesting as a primary subject… Asserting the primacy of the I suggests that we should care about it because it is an I, because it has incurred slights at the hands of others, of the world.  And we should care.  Sure, I agree with that; everyone is special… and inhabiting their experience allows us to share it, know it… But I still don’t want to read what most people have to say about themselves if it’s just to tell their story.  I want it to be art…

You tried to make it art.  In Ghostbread, you gave me childhood experiences like a pile of Polaroids.  They were beautiful snapshots, but the pile did not make a whole.  In the end, it was just fragments of a life–people came and went and never mattered.

And your stories never got to the point where I felt like, “Yes!  This is what life feels like.”  I believe your stories were true, but they didn’t feel true.

It’s like an anecdote that Stephen King wrote about in The Green Mile. This, at least, is how I remember Steven King’s story.  This kid chopped his finger off and then went to a tent revival, a healing service.  Church folk prayed over the finger and the finger grew back.  And the Green Mile character believed the tale was true because the boy said his finger itched when it grew back.  That itch made the difference between credibility and dismissal.  These are the details I craved in your pages but did not find.

I always heard John Gardner quoted in creative writing workshops: fiction should be a “vivid and continuous dream.”  Memory is vivid but it isn’t continuous.  Maybe memory isn’t thick enough for what your pages ask of it–to create wallpapered, furnished dreams the reader can inhabit.

We met again.  We drank cafe au lait.  I read Dave Eggers‘s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Oliver Sacks‘s Uncle Tungsten, Madeleine L’Engle‘s Two-Part Invention.

You began to win me back.

Dave Eggers disarmed me with his “Rules and suggestions for the enjoyment of this book” and his Acknowledgments section which acknowledged all the book’s conceivable flaws, including “the Self-Aggrandizement as Art Form Aspect.”  He did it, proved himself an “I” worth listening to.  And he was being so postmodern, so aware of the expectations of the form; this meant that even when Eggers was solipsistic, well, it was a commentary on being solipsistic.

Oliver Sacks stretched your possibilities because he told about his childhood without a trace of solipsism.  Maybe this is because he is Oliver Sacks and all parts of the world enchant him.  He can’t tell a scientific story without quoting Milton or Auden, much less tell his own story without praising what he was reading or learning from his relatives.  The world outside his head is fully and wonderfully present in Uncle Tungsten.  Is that something peculiar to Sacks, something not all your legion of writers can manage?  I hope not; a single “I” floating solo through life is flimsy.

Ander Monson corroborates:

I can’t see a way to stop… thinking about the I, examining myself… in text and thought.  Perhaps the answer… is in research, in listening, in exploring, in taking notes.  It’s harder, yes.  It’s finding, creating, or uncovering another subject–something else to rely on or parse beyond the self.

Madeleine L’Engle, too, did more than narrate her own experience, and this made you beautiful.  Two-part Invention was about her marriage, and marriage exists as something third, not fully one person or the other.  Throughout her journal-memoir, L’Engle’s version of first-person was inviting: honest without pedantry and revelatory without narcissism.  I felt like I was being offered her experiences, like she was saying, “I want you to know the real me, the way I’d be if you stopped by when my house was a wreck.”  This is a generous, self-giving narrator, who humbly gives herself in hope of connection.

Maybe this humility is your greatest possibility.

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Greenberg and the Fight for Fearless Identity

Noah Baumbach‘s latest film, Greenberg, begins with the buoyancy of his nineties films, particularly Mr. Jealousy (1997) and Kicking and Screaming (1995). Both Generation X films are the dialogue-driven character studies that distinguish this Academy Award-nominated director, but they just don’t have the human piranhas of his recent films Margot at the Wedding (2007) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) .

Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, and Ben Stiller in Greenberg.

But lest we be lulled by the misty sunlight and comically kind driver in the opening shots, the film soon hints that it won’t be all sunshine and smiles.  The unassuming Florence (Greta Gerwig) works as personal assistant for the Greenbergs, a wealthy Los Angeles family, and she is soon to meet the piranha.  Her employer’s brother Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) will be house-sitting while they are on vacation in Vietnam, and they’ve given him her phone number.  Oh and by the way, the Greenbergs tell her, Roger just got out of a mental hospital.

While Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale featured multiple self-absorbed characters, Greenberg proves it only takes one narcissist to elevate dialogue (the characters have to keep up with Roger Greenberg’s caustic intellect) and raise existential questions (they have to fight for their identities as Greenberg tries to make interactions all about himself).  In Greenberg, most of these existential questions stem from anxiety, and the characters’ successes–and the degree to which hope exists for them–hinge on their ability to win against fear.

Roger Greenberg’s fears are most noticeable; he has just suffered a nervous breakdown.  Baumbach and co-writer (and wife) Jennifer Jason Leigh leave this anxiety unspecified, but we know that it manifested in bodily disconnection.  One day, Greenberg couldn’t feel his legs.  Though he’s on meds and out of the hospital, he’s still paralyzed, even if not physically.  He’s unable to know who he is or what he is feeling.

This leaves him disconnected from why others feel the way they do, which in turn makes him a menace.  Fifteen years ago, not realizing that he had power to set his friends’ lives adrift as much as his own, he let his fear keep his band from signing a record deal.  Neither he nor his friends can let this mistake go.

He calls these old friends the minute he’s back  in his native L.A, but it’s more a ritualized restlessness than a desire to see them again.  In moments that ache on screen, he paces around the house practically shaking until he picks up the phone.  When one person isn’t around, he goes down his list until someone can meet him.  Even though he ruthlessly describes Florence as someone you’d only like if you worked in an office with her, he keeps calling her.  Sometimes one friend isn’t enough to make him feel like he’s not alone.  He calls Florence while out to dinner with former band-mate Ivan (Rys Ifans), and in a moment that clinches his schmuckiness, when Florence arrives he ducks out to call former girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to ask for a date.

When Greenberg is alone, he fears being alone, but when he is with people, his social skills are nil.  He asks for a drink the minute he steps into Florence’s apartment, the second time they have ever met each other.  Later, when he makes sexual advances to Florence, he is clumsy to the point of being harsh.  The combination of Florence’s sweet acquiescence and Greenberg’s headlong rush to assuage his loneliness makes this sex scene look so cold, awkward, and loveless it’s almost an assault.

Because Greenberg is disconnected from himself and others, it doesn’t dawn on him that Florence herself battles fear.  He sees millennials as brave.  “There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying,” he tells twenty-year-olds at a party after snorting coke with them.  “I’m freaked out by you kids.”

Florence’s fear does not make her cruel – she is a sincere and lovely person – but it causes her pain.  In the film’s opening moments, she tells her insensitive employer that it’s okay; he doesn’t need to pay her right now.  It’s been three weeks, but it’s okay.  In the next scene, she borrows $40 from a friend.

Florence, who seems younger than twenty-five underneath her grandmother sweaters and old-fashioned name, is a new character type for Baumbach.  She provides a way for Greenberg to explore the relationship between Gen-X and millenials, one of this layered film’s many themes.  Florence’s eagerness to please keeps leading her to things she doesn’t want to do–especially casual sex when it’s clear she wants lasting connection.

Anxiety cuts these two characters off from each other.  They are both tormented not just by loneliness but also by the same cyclical fear:  they are doing nothing with their lives.  Florence tells someone that she’s been out of college as long as she’s been in, and nobody cares if she gets up in the morning.  Greenberg keeps telling people that he’s just doing nothing for awhile, but he justifies this to Florence: “You know I almost had a record deal when I got out of college.  I haven’t done nothing…I’m doing nothing deliberately.”

It’s a nervous cycle.  Fear of doing nothing produces anxiety and anxiety becomes debilitating.  This would keep the characters cut off from each other and keep the movie hopeless, if not for Ivan.  Greenberg’s friend Ivan offers the two an exit lane out of their fears.  They–particularly Greenberg–are presented with an exemplar.  Ivan has overcome.  Fifteen years ago, he was an addict.  Now, he drinks a blend of iced-tea and lemonade.  Hip but weary, Ivan stands on the spectrum between Greenberg’s narcissistic edginess and Florence’s people-pleasing fear.  Baumbach said he wanted Ivan’s character to have “a gentleness in him,” and he does.  Ivan is the only friend from the band who always picks up the phone and keeps coming over when Greenberg asks him.

Where Greenberg is alienated, Ivan is reconciling.  He’s been living in a motel since he and his wife separated, but later he tells Greenberg they’re going to give it one more go.  Ivan never thought he would be a family man, but he’s facing the difficulties of close relationships and embracing the life he never thought he would have.

Where Florence is compulsive about saying yes, Ivan is honest.  When Greenberg wants to start up the band again, Ivan tells it like it is – he has a job now; he can’t just do that.

There is hope for Florence and Greenberg, but the ending depends on the extent to which they have overcome fear.  In the final scenes, are we seeing Greenberg’s frenetic effort to get away from yet another situation he is in, or his true pursuit of the situation he is going to?  Does Florence want things the way they end up, or is she afraid of things being different?  The audience hopes the last scene is not the start of one more lonely cycle, and is given reasonable grounds for expecting it to be the start of something new.

“I guess we all, a lot of us, spend a lot of time keeping our Greenbergs at bay,” Rys Ifans reflected in an interview.  And I guess we all, plenty of us, spend plenty of energy keeping our Florence-like fears at bay, which makes these characters easy to relate to.  We hope that what is sincere and lovely can bring us into true connection.

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This Pain Is Not For You

Does sad music demand any ethical responsibilities of its listeners? Can we use sad music any way we see fit? Or does the disclosure of pain oblige us to think carefully about the way we listen?

This is why I ask. In June, I went to a Vic Chesnutt concert.  In the bustling bar, the 45-year-old singer-songwriter looked small. He sat in his wheelchair while two crew members hoisted him on stage.  His face looked sallow, and red where it should not have been red. He said incoherent things. The audience – mostly there for the next act – grew impatient and rude, having loud conversations in the middle of Chesnutt’s set. They whooped when he sang that Florida was “the redneck riviera” but talked over the ominous line, “I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be, even if he wants to be dead.”  While struggling to grip his guitar comfortably in the chair, Chesnutt poured out dark, plaintive songs. They were full of painful thoughts so few people can articulate with his precision, humor, and imagery. And most of the audience didn’t care.

The Empty Bottle, where he played, is a small venue, and I was able to meet Chesnutt afterward.  I only had to wait for one other person before I could say hello. I told him I really liked his song “Wallace Stevens.” He smiled and said “I’m really proud of that song.” I didn’t know what to say after that. I moved away. Chesnutt was left like a lonely guest at his own party.

The moment made me feel like the way I’d been listening to music up till then had been cheap. I’d spent college listening to the saddest music I could find. I hadn’t found really good sad music, though, so this mostly amounted to Counting Crows and a few emo bands I’m too embarrassed to name. I wept along with verses like “I need a phone call/I need a raincoat/I need a big love/I need a phone call” and carried them around with me all day. I thought about the music, not the musicians, as if their art was a Frisbee flung far and whose owner was unknown.

In the gray light of the Empty Bottle, the songwriter was there and was so very human. His pain was not this thing created to make a good song.

This was Chesnutt’s last tour. Christmas week, he overdosed on muscle relaxers and died. There is controversy over whether the overdose was intentional; Chesnutt had attempted suicide in the past.

Many artists who make sad music have been doled a more than average serving of tragedy. Take Eels (Mark Oliver Everett) for example. Within a few years, his father died suddenly, sister committed suicide, and mother died of lung cancer. Or consider outsider musician Daniel Johnston. His quirky music has been created out of severe bipolar disorder. Even Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. Vic Chesnutt was paralyzed in a car accident at 18 years old.  The list goes on.

Though an avid consumer of melancholy tunes, nothing too terrible happened to me in college. I was just moody. Is that okay? Is it okay to turn on the music of Elliot Smith, who suffered a drug addiction and died young, just because my day is in the tank? I mean, a break-up sucks, but it’s not the same as losing your whole family, being addicted to heroin, or losing use of your legs.

Clearly, one of art’s functions is to make people feel. Sometimes, it makes people feel miserable.  Like Bleeding Gums Murphy told Lisa Simpson, “The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse.”

But does the fact that so many of these experiences are beyond what most of us have to deal with increase the average listener’s responsibility?

I think yes. Being confronted with other people’s pain requires a thoughtful response, and art should require the same. A melancholy album confronts the consumer with several options:

1) Listen in a way that keeps looping you back to your own mood. This is probably the least ethically sound way to listen to music. It’s not good for listener or artist. Here, music is valued based on how wretched it makes a person feel, not based on its own merit.

2) Don’t listen to depressing music at all. There’s a section in Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine regrets the time he wasted weeping over the death of Dido. “I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas,” wrote Augustine, “forgetful of my own, and to weep for dead Dido, because she killed herself for love; the while, with dry eyes, I endured my miserable self dying among these things, far from Thee, O God my life.” Time spent commiserating with artists could be used more profitable things.

There is a time to wallow, but there’s also a time to put away the Chunky Monkey ice cream and emo songs. Like the Microphones sing, “Get off the internet, we are the ones who are alive right now, so let’s start living.” Augustine says there is no place for using art as a way to avoid God. However, this view would also mean that people would be missing out on several positive ways to listen –

3) Look to music to reveal something that will resonate, and that, like an empathetic friend, will reveal something comforting and true about oneself and the world.

4) Appreciate the common humanity music expresses. Tolstoy says, “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man . . . is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.” If I feel moved when Elliot Smith sings “Needle in the Hay,” this doesn’t have to lead me back to myself. It can lead me to wonder. To wonder that through a well-crafted lyric, I feel something that could be similar to what Elliot Smith experienced when he wrote it.

5) Experience the music as being invited into something totally outside one’s own experience. I will never know what it is like to be Daniel Johnston, Nico, or Joni Mitchell, but their music invites me to experience not just commonality but difference. Even with our shared humanity, I can’t say I understand completely, but their music gives me a way to begin getting outside myself and trying.

Too often, listeners talk over the music; they superimpose the current clutter of their lives onto art. I’d like sad music to be more than that. I wonder if I’ll be able to take it.

On Keeping a Spiritual Travelogue


My grandfather’s death absorbed a December ten years ago and cast a long shadow on Decembers to come. Because of this, “getting into the Christmas spirit” now requires me to reflect on death, and I suspect this is the case for many. It’s a fitting meditation for Advent because the birth and death of Christ, and our own death and sense of being made new, all twine together in Christians’ musings.

The long weeks my grandfather was dying let him communicate meaningfully with each of his children, grandchildren, and many of his friends. I say communicate, but he could no longer speak. He’d had surgery on a tumor in his throat. Watery coughs echoed through his trach tube. My mother bought him a clip board and he wrote messages in wobbly block letters. I still have many of them. When it was my turn, he wrote that I should find his spiritual journal. It would be in the bottom drawer of his office filing cabinet.

He died December 17, 1999. That week, midway through my senior year of high school, I hid in a rough polyester armchair in his office. My grandmother pulled papers out of his office closet and threw them away in grief-fueled frenzy. In the armchair, I paged through his journal. It was detailed and meticulous, like most things my grandfather did. Like masking tape labels he stuck on fans and tape-players to tell when they had been purchased and had batteries changed. Like financial records he kept or the way he arranged every detail of his funeral years earlier.

The journal – a “spiritual travelogue,” he dubbed it – began with a timeline of spiritual highlights, mingled with dates of his retirement, his brother’s cancer diagnosis, and other life markers. From there, it was more memoir than diary, complete with a title (JOURNAL OF MY JOURNEY IN FAITH), byline (George Hodges Soule), epigraph (a prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s), and chapters.

It showed marks of many revisions: dates crossed-out and corrected, words circled with question marks, margin notes to explain connections between people or events. While he recovered from a knee replacement in 1996, he meant to type up a good copy and “use the inactivity… as a gift of uncommitted time to make some real headway,” but that’s where his journal ends.

Unpolished and unfinished, it is still one of the most influential things I’ve read.

To tell you why it’s so influential, I have to tell you something about my own spiritual travels that isn’t easy for me to confess. I come from a boisterous evangelical tradition where my friends and immediate family were always clamoring about “what God had done in our lives” lately. Not only were my grandparents from austere New England upbringing, but their generation had an expansive definition of what should be kept private. Faith was, for many, the most private. Not considering these powerful psychosocial pressures, I took my grandparents at face value when I was growing up. Christians talked about being Christians. All the time.

After college, when I spent a month at Southborough L’Abri, it dawned on me what sort of a Christian my grandfather had been. I had conversations at L’Abri about the value of a small but effective Christian life – one that lived out the command to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” In Southborough, I attended a small Episcopal church, the same sort my grandparents attended. My last day there, the liturgy had us pray “that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day.”

Those two insights sketched my grandfather in front of me. He was a Christian in the public sphere, chugging away at the same Du Pont job for years, serving on a community college board, helping more people than he ever let on. The only time I ever remember him putting this faith into words was a time when I was homesick and he drew on rich reserves of personal, spiritual comfort in order to comfort me.

I’m not meaning to absolve my grandparents, or myself, from the need to lovingly communicate the beliefs that were defining them. Indeed, keeping mum about this reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Greenleaf,” where Mrs. May muses that “the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.” Mrs. May believes the word “Jesus” should be kept private because she is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she does not, of course, believe that any of it was true.” My grandfather was quite far removed from this, but I had no paradigm for his quietness of faith. I value having such a paradigm and now I value the journal he left behind even more.

Sentences like, “God is present in the beauties and wonders of his creation where it is beautiful and wonderful, and in the challenge where it isn’t” come back to me even when the green binder is closed. Events he relates guide my decisions. They are matter-of-fact, yet vulnerable. He describes nourishing, clarifying weeks spent at a Jesuit retreat, and this eventually led me to pick up St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises. When he records how his psychologist challenged his depressive mid-life crisis, those words shake me: “If you’re so damned religious, what about the sacrament of your marriage?”

His journal is influential as a means of understanding him, but it’s also a way for one generation to understand the spiritual concerns of another. There is much to learn from another generation, even if that lesson is just to listen more closely.

My grandfather’s spiritual journal makes me wish for more conversations about this part of life we share. I know that I have his blood, because there are things I can put in writing that I could never say aloud. I’m certain this is why his journey of finding “the immanence and presence of God, day in and day out” is something he wanted me to discover while the rest of the family was eating cold cuts and wearing black, and to keep reading as his wife channeled her despair into wastebaskets full of shredded paper. He put it in writing and waited for his descendants to grow into it.

Learning to Love Jonathan Richman

The music of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Richman has been acclaimed not just for its influence on early punk, but also for its childlike and positive lyrics. Songs like “That Summer Feeling,” “Twilight in Boston,” and “Hey There Little Insect” take a close and cheery look at oft-missed parts of life.

Nonetheless, this was an artist I had to learn to love. There. Sounds grouchy, doesn’t it? Did I also have to learn to love pizza and sunny days? Whenever I heard his upbeat melodies, his nasal voice and slurred dictionannoyed me. His songs struck me as repetitive, some of them comprised of just one repeated lyric, like “Gail Loves Me.” And what kind of fluff was he singing about? In college, I judged music’s worth by the anguish it made me feel. Since then, I’ve tried to balance my tastes, but until this past June Jonathan Richman’s happy-go-lucky tunes still didn’t have a place on my spectrum.

In June, he played at one of my favorite Chicago venues, The Empty Bottle, with Vic Chesnutt, one of my favorite musicians. Richman and his drummer, Tommy Larkin, have just produced Chesnutt’s recent Skitter on Take Off – which, for me, has become another reason to love Jonathan Richman.

Anticipating the concert, I started spinning some Jonathan Richman albums. And, as often happens with good music when you give it a chance, I began to like what I heard.

On the small stage at the Empty Bottle, he held the guitar and danced twirling jigs. He smiled the entire time. With just Richman and Larkin on stage, the concert felt intimate. He sang about the same simple things I’d heard on earlier ventures into his music, but hearing it while seeing the smiling face made it all cohere. This guy really liked life.

He sang, “The lilies of the field just sway all day, oh, but no one is ever dressed quite their way,” assuring his listeners that “you and I don’t need to worry.” He captured a quandary I’ve felt myself: “I want the city but I want the country, too,” because, sang Richman, “I want to be with my friends by the fire and the starlight, but I want music, music in my life. I want a bar hoppin’ music scene, I want to pick from ten or fifteen.”

What ultimately won me over was the way Richman sang about women. I have to confess, going to a concert generally makes me feel about as self-conscious as a beach trip. Every type of music has an associated way to dress, which I can’t get right no matter how I try. But Richman sang about loving a woman who “don’t act cool, don’t act like a femme fatale… she laughs when she wants…she laughs when she laughs, she’s the breeze, she’s the natural…. Her mystery not of high heels and eyeshadow.”

I came back from the concert realizing how rare Jonathan Richman is. In a culture where it’s cool to half-close your lids and say, “that was so 2008,” his music revives wonder. The same year Woody Allen was belittling Annie Hall for using the word “neat,” Jonathan Richman was promoting Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers by writing: “Hi There! I’m Jonathan Richman and I’d just like to tell you that after all these months of waiting you can buy a record of me singing one of my favorite songs, ‘Roadrunner’… Neat, huh?”

A part of the nascent 70’s proto-punk movement, he slept on the Velvet Underground manager’s couch when he first moved to New York. He plunged into an era of exuberant ugliness and maintained his innocence, posing wide-eyed and smiling, singing about how he didn’t use drugs, and still looking carefully at life’s rarely-lauded beauties.

It’s Richman’s lack of snide irony that lets him indulge in wonder. In the liner notes to the Rhino release of Modern Lovers, his first album, the reviewer noted Richman’s “non-ironic affection for the trappings of modern American civilization and culture.”

When I moved to a city, I learned that wedging one’s way into artistic, cultured society can mean acquiring knowledge not for its own sake but for the sake of being able to reference it. And once one could make the cultural references, one could make ironic remarks about them.

This is enervating. If you really love something, you’re bound to look naive, even nerdy. This is the risk that Jonathan Richman takes with his ebullient, “Neat, huh?” and his songs about how much he likes “When Harpo Played His Harp” or how he loves moments of confrontation because he “get[s] this thrill out of saying what’s true.”

David Foster Wallace wrote that “irony, irreverence, and rebellion [have] come to be not liberating but enfeebling” in our culture. This is why artists like Richman are a breeze of relief. Loving the simple things in life may cause us to lose our ironic, critical prowess, but can it be worth it to live without loving everyday things and looking at them with rapt appreciation?

Down-to-Earth Romanticism: Jane Campion’s Bright Star


(This essay contains a few spoilers, but they’re not so bad if you already know Keats’s biography.)

A film about a Romantic poet’s romance could so easily be cringe-worthy. I surveyed the movie poster as I bought tickets. It flaunted Victorian script that glowed like a star, a couple about to kiss, and the tag line, “First Love Burns Brightest.” Was I about to experience media I would have to ‘fess up to liking, like Gilmore Girls, rather than a film I could proclaim as great cinema?

The emotional tale of a three-year courtship cut short by Keats’s death at 25 could have become sentimental goop. But I needn’t have feared. Jane Campion – whose films Sweetie and Angel at My Table are personal favorites, though it was The Piano that won three Oscars – made several deft moves in her writing and direction of Bright Star and created a solid film.

Her first smart move is that she grounds the chaste but impassioned love of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) in the midst of reality. That’s not to say that she portrayed the Keats-Brawne romance as mundane, measured, and reasonable. Romantic poetry is characterized by its delight in powerful, overflowing feelings rather than Enlightenment rationalism, and Campion captures the sentimental heights Brawne and Keats soared. For instance, in one snippet of Keats’s Romantic words to Brawne, he tells her, “I had such a dream last night. I was floating above the trees, with my lips connected to that of a beautiful figure.”

Keats may have floated above the trees, but Campion binds him to the earth. As Dan Persons writes in Huffington Post, “The film, in short, is sweet, sad, and moving but with Campion’s astringent edge keeping the proceedings from lapsing into sentimentality. And that makes all the difference.”

But how exactly does one do this?

Campion maneuvers away from sentimentality by showing Keats’s interactions with the Brawne family, and Fanny’s relationship with her family. Indeed, the first expressions of love in this film are not between Keats and Fanny Brawne at all. Instead, we see Fanny’s love for her very young sister, Toots, and Toots’s love for Fanny.

Toots demonstrates her love and trust when she and her brother Samuel walk into the bookstore to buy Endymion for Fanny. “My sister has met the author,” Toots tells the bookseller, “and she wants to read it for herself to know if he’s an idiot or not.” The fact that Fanny has entrusted them with this mission and that Toots feels like she can repeat anything Fanny says shows their close relationship.

The family’s interactions with each other are believable, with small bickerings, affectionate nicknames, “I love yous,” and resigned sighs. Keats becomes part of this family. Right after he declares his love for Fanny and they join the picnicking family, the couple play a game of “freezing” every time Toots turns around to look at them.

These touches make the film feel like you are watching the workings of the most fun and dynamic family you know, and this makes the film so human it’s impossible to cringe. (Okay, maybe it’s possible when characters read poetry aloud to each other. If you can’t suspend disbelief to watch a musical and pretend that people do burst into song mid-sentence, you’ll have a hard time imagining that people do quote poetry to each other from memory.)

The second smart move is that Bright Star seems aware of how silly Romanticism could appear to 2009’s viewers. The trailer describes Brawne as a realist, but once she and Keats are an item and he teaches her poetry, Brawne lazes about in ecstasy, cries, threatens to kill herself when she doesn’t hear from Keats, and in short, acts like a high school kid in love. As the three years progress, she demonstrates bravery, gravitas, and spunk along with her absorbing love for Keats, but at many points, she’s obsessed, and this creates humor and lets the audience observe Romanticism.

For example, after Keats wishes that the two of them were butterflies and could fill three days with pure delight, Fanny, Toots, and Samuel take the Romantic idea to the next level and start a butterfly farm in Fanny’s bedroom. Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) walks into the “farm” bewildered, wanting to open windows, brushing the clinging butterflies off her dress, and sighing in disgust.

Campion crafts the juxtaposition well. On one hand, it’s ridiculous: keeping dozens of butterflies in a bedroom, shutting all the windows to create the warm environment the insects love, and not caring a hoot if they fly in your face. On the other hand, it’s cause for awe. The camera rests on jars of multi-colored butterflies, watches a blue-winged one flutter on a sliced orange, and looks at Toots caught up in the sight of them. Campion’s lens gazes wryly at the aspects of Romanticism that seem over-the-top to us today, but nevertheless appreciates the same beauty these poets held dear.

In Campion’s hands, Keats and Brawne’s relationship is a way to examine what makes all types of love meaningful, even love for the world itself. In Campion’s hands, it’s a film to proclaim as great cinema.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne dance in Bright Star

John Keats and Fanny Brawne dance in Bright Star

Manna in the Neon Wilderness

A few months ago, my husband Sean and I sat in our living room rummaging through crumbs and unwanted nuts at the bottom of a bowl of Chex mix. Sean pulled out a Brazil nut and stared at it. “Who ever even thought to eat that?” He asked. “It looks like a freakin’ piece of wood.”

This summer, Sean and I joined a Community Supported Agriculture program (or CSA) with our friends Catherine and Jarrett Knox. CSAs, increasingly popular among city-dwellers, are partnerships where local farmers sell food “shares” to support themselves before the harvest and then those who buy the shares pick up boxes of organic produce straight from the farm. Ours is coming to a close, having lasted about 20 weeks.

Since Sean and I tend to be fairly traditional in our food selections, I had never seen – or even heard of – some of the vegetables that appeared in our weekly share. So, this summer’s recurring question was this: How did anyone ever decide you could eat some of these vegetables, anyhow? I mean, kohlrabi? It looks like it wandered out of Monsters, Inc.!

Participating in a CSA this summer not only broadened my culinary horizons, it also taught me a thing or two about trust.

Joining a CSA immediately provided surprises. Catherine Knox received an email that gave the host’s address, phone number, and garage door code. The hosts were a family who opened their garage and let CSA subscribers grab their shares. Yes, we just traipsed into someone’s garage and helped ourselves to the farm-fresh wonders within: veggies, cheese, and eggs (depending on which we paid for). People don’t quiver about this kind of thing in Amish country, where I grew up, but in Chicago this is rare. “It’s a very good thing I have the Holy Spirit,” says Catherine. “Because taking all of those cheese shares was totally tempting.”

Soon I realized that the hosts weren’t the only ones for whom this was an act of faith. The Knoxes and Talbots spent $300 per couple, and we had little idea what sort of food we were getting. The amount and tastiness of the food would depend on the quality of growing conditions. And, Catherine pointed out, we would have to trust the farmers to be generous, since it would be easy to pretend the harvest had been weak and pull one over on the Chicagoans. It was like manna: we had to trust that good and nourishing food was waiting for us.

The day before each pickup, Home Grown Wisconsin, who ran our CSA, sent out a newsletter listing which veggies we would find under the drop cloth in the host’s garage. I’m used to planning the dishes I want to make, hopping online to sort recipes by rating, then rolling through the aisles to buy what I need. This was more like being a kid and not knowing what was for dinner till I smelled it cooking. I was handed food and hunted around on blogs to plan my meals around a few key vegetables. We ate less of our favorite meals this summer, but found some delectable zucchini and beet recipes that we would not have eaten otherwise. Melissa Garrett, who has subscribed to Chicago-area CSAs for the past four years, agrees, “We have discovered our love of leeks, parsnips, turnips, and kohlrabi from getting those veggies and having to figure out what the heck to do with them!”



It is kind of ironic that right after a summer in which I was given box after box of mystery vegetables, I was also handed a series of life events I wouldn’t have predicted, starting with my husband becoming very ill for a month-long stretch. So, that picture of walking home with a mixed bag of Swiss chard, rhubarb, raspberries, and cucumbers is one that stays with me. I like to make use of things; it hurts me that cauliflower is moldering in the crisper as I write. In some way, the events of this autumn will be nourishing, and if I learned what to do with kohlrabi, perhaps I can learn what to do with these changes. (Kohlrabi makes a lovely apple-slaw, incidentally, and it’s also good roasted.)

Aside from the lessons learned, now that CSA season in the Midwest is nearly through, I find myself wondering if I’ll partner with the local farmers in this way again next year. This makes me wonder – what circumstances would make a CSA worthwhile for someone? What factors would make it less desirable? Here’s what I’ve decided, with input from fellow CSA veterans Catherine Knox and Melissa Garrett.

CSAs are excellent if:

– You place great importance on receiving food from local sources. CSAs let you stay connected with local farms, and the money you pay up front helps them toward a solid harvest. Many CSAs send newsletters with articles about what each farm is like. One farm that supplied our food uses horses to avoid fossil fuels.

– You want to eat fruits and vegetables that are in season and learn to live off what the land provides.

– You love to try new foods and new recipes.

– You know trustworthy blogs with good seasonal recipes and you have time to experiment with recipes or already have good ones in your repertoire.

– You live in an area where it is hard to get local produce, but easy to find a CSA pick-up location.

– You have a family that feels adventurous about even the kookiest vegetables.

– You want to can and/or freeze so that nothing goes to waste, or you have people you can share any extra vegetables with.

– You are interested in seeing the farm that grows your food.

CSAs are not ideal if:

– You will only make use of a few kinds of vegetables. If this is the case, I suggest taking the $30/week you might spend on the CSA and heading to the farmer’s market, farm stand, or orchard. You are still supporting local farmers, though not giving them the cash before harvest.

– Your schedule is hectic and sawdust-crust frozen pizza usually sounds better than veggies.

– You live by yourself and don’t have folks in mind who would like your extra veggies, or who could share a meal with you.

– You live far away from the pickup location, or have to move.

– You’re going to waste food. (If there are, like, four pieces of penne left from our dinner, I’ll save them. So some weeks it depressed me that I never had time to look up a recipe, and thus kale become a pasty mush in the fridge.)

As farmers harvest the last CSA vegetables of the season right now, I am thankful to have purchased a share in local farms this summer. I’m unsure whether I’ll do it next year, though the bleak season to come may leave me craving freshness. Whatever happens, I am glad to have participated in a CSA this summer because I found new levels of trust in the city and in myself. I also learned that there are vegetables the color of newts I used to catch in the summer, back when I was far more in touch with the land.

Interested in CSAs? Check out Local Harvest to get started.

Creativity, Community, and Secret Agents

Elementary Camp_2 Elementary Camp_3

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot; Graphic design: Chris Ware

In Chicago, a glimmer of the world that ought to be, in our midst: Elementary-age kids chatter, laugh, and hunch over their latest writing projects, jotting down what they know about superheroes. Tutors admire their writing or ask prodding questions. My Morning Jacket plays in the background. Then, the kids circle on a carpet and do some very painless literary analysis. They deconstruct a genre with giggles and exclamations, eager to contribute, since the genre happens to be superhero tales. Once they’ve grasped the basic elements of the genre – sidekicks, villains, fatal flaws – they’re ready to create their own characters. Some are gleefully gross (these are elementary school kids, after all), like a boy named Antonio’s “Armpit Hair Man,” who swings to the rescue from (yup. guessed it) his armpit hair.

“We’re academic, but we’re also fun and academic,” says 826 CHI‘s Executive Director, Mara O’Brien, whose enthusiasm and welcoming presence shape this chapter of the 826 National writing and tutoring centers. O’Brien greets each Elementary Writing Camp participant, calling out, “Hello, Sweet Jocelyn!” or “Welcome, my friend!” She believes that 826 CHI’s mission is not just to improve students’ language skills, but also to introduce them to a community of adults who care about them.

At this tutoring center, caring means encouraging creativity, and that usually means thinking like a kid. “We try to trick them into writing,” O’Brien admits. O’Brien once had elementary students write narratives about imaginary vacations – reminiscent of Magic School Bus adventures – through space, inside the human body, or through Harry Potter’s world. O’Brien says that this subject matter inspired elementary kids to write one and a half pages and to tell their parents they didn’t want to leave yet – they were still writing.

The world 826 CHI creates might not otherwiseexist for Chicago students.Presently, says a June 2009 report from the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, researched by the University of Illinois at Chicago, about half of the students who attend Chicago public schools drop out or fail to graduate on time. Just yesterday, I listened as a mother interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered described Chicago’s selective enrollment schools as a “lifeboat” for students, implying how rough the ordinary school experience is. CPS has long been a troubled system, but it looks as if the state’s budget crisis will worsen its problems: the state board of education cut its budget by $180 million and slashed foreign language, arts, and agricultural programs.

Knowing the arts could be cut, three Americorps volunteers have been bringing West Garfield Park middle school boys to 826 CHI’s summer comics writing workshop. Yara Shadid, Gretchen Oorthuys, and Rachel Bernkopf marvel that the West Garfield Park kids are so creative, drawing on every flat surface and singing their own rap songs. Yet “their in-school time is very strict and regimented,” says Bernkopf. When the arts are cut in public schools, character development, originality, and the feeling of membership in the school all suffer, say the Americorps volunteers. Students will believe creativity has nothing to do with their future success.

Near where the kids circled to deconstruct superhero tales, a Chicago map shows the 157 schools that 826 CHI serves. This doesn’t just mean that kids from 157 schools are tutored at 826 CHI. It also means that teachers plan field trips to the center and that 826 CHI sends volunteers to Chicago public schools to provide extra one-on-one help. “We want to help area teachers get their students excited about writing,” says their website.

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
Store design: Chris Ware and Patrick Shaffner

Tutors’ help is especially valuable because if any place can remove the perception that creativity is unimportant, it’s this place. After all, 826 National was begun by Dave Eggers, author of six books including What is the What and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founder of McSweeney’s independent publishing house, which publishes McSweeney’s literary magazine, The Believer magazine, and Wholphin short-film DVDs.

At Chicago’s chapter, the advisory board reads like a who’s who of the local literary scene: Roger Ebert, Alex Kotlowitz, Audrey Niffeneger, Joe Meno, and many other well-known authors. These are people who’ve made their living being creative, and this is what their participation is about. For older kids, having contact with published authors who care about them must seem almost imaginary – as unreal as a superhero world. But this is the world that 826 CHI is able to create for students, and it is a reinforcing experience for would-be authors.

These connections to published authors also pave the way for young writers to see their own work in print.

Right in Front of Us is one recent example. Published in 2008, it was written entirely by CPS ninth-graders and edited by Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are No Children Here, Never a City So Real, and others. Reading the introduction, it’s easy to see Kotlowitz’s respect for these kids. “I picked up these stories one night,” wrote Kotlowitz, “sat down on my living room couch and didn’t rise until I was finished. I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like this before.”

826 CHI keeps publishing student work. Most recently, 826 CHI published the first volume of their compendium, featuring work from students ranging from age 6 to 18. In 2007, 200 second through sixth graders wrote a hilarious guide to Chicago called A Sunday Afternoon Hotdog Meal. Publishing student work is an essential aspect of 826 National – which has also published the 826 Quarterly and sought student input for the Best American Non-required Reading anthologies.

At 826 CHI, kids join a circle where the arts have been crucial to success. Mara O’Brien says this shows the reality of what it is like to survive as a writer. Young writers see that even professional writers work many jobs to support themselves. Though earning success by your wits is hard work, 826 CHI is incredibly hip, and above all, the staff create an environment where it is cool to be academic.

Consider, for instance, that from the street, this doesn’t look like a tutoring center at all. Instead, the front of 826 CHI is The Boring Store, Chicago’s finest purveyor of secret agent supplies. When students come for tutoring, they pass through a portal that looks more like an art gallery than a store and sells such tongue-in-cheek items as a dropper-and-bottle called “Eve’s Dropper.”

The store has proved a good idea for many reasons. Not only does it sell quirky items and 826 National’s books, it takes away any stigma kids might feel about going to a “tutoring center.” It also brings in foot traffic. People wouldn’t walk off the street into “the place with all the tables,” says O’Brien, but they do come to The Boring Store, and this increases people’s familiarity with 826 CHI.

Though it’s been a benefit, Eggers didn’t plan it this way when he started 826 National. He simply wanted to start a tutoring center, but when he found the perfect place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the city told him, “That’s not zoned for tutoring; it’s zoned for retail.” As O’Brien tells it, Eggers replied, “Fine! I’m opening a pirate store.” And thus, Eggers began selling a whole lot of lard and tutoring centers came to be tucked into the backs of stores that sold anything you’d ever need for Space Travel, Bigfoot Research, Time Travel, or – of course – your secret job moonlighting as a superhero.

Places where creativity is free, rolicking, and communal may always be rare. But one such place exists at the corner of Milwaukee and Paulina here in Chicago, and it stands as a reminder of what ought to be – and a testimony to what can be.

Connecting Refugees,
One Bead at a Time

Photo: Ruth Ann North

“Iam a link in a chain,” John Henry Cardinal Newman famously mused, “a bond of connection between persons.” His meditation explores the idea that even in the midst of obscurity, insecurity, or even desolation, God is doing “some definite service” through His people. Even the smallest actions can mean that people are gaining strength from each other.Ruth Ann North, founder of jewelry company Refugee Beads, which sells jewelry handcrafted by refugees, exemplifies how exciting it is to be a link in a chain, a bond of connection.

Individually, the actions of jewelry-making are tiny and meticulous.Threading beads onto strings,gripping and twisting wires, sorting and selecting materials. If you’ve made jewelry, you might have suddenly felt like your fingers were gigantic.When the jewelry-making classes in Atlanta, Georgia lead to what North calls “Village Gatherings” in homes and churches in the city and beyond, these minuscule actions open out into the largeness of shared meals and stories, laughter, singing, prayer – as Newman would put it, “connection between persons.”

Refugee Beads began in March 2009. Two months before, Ruth Ann and her husband, Ian, left a particularly biting Chicago winter and moved to the three-mile circle of Atlanta known as the International Village, home to 145 different people groups and tens of thousands of refugees.There, through the North American Mission Board, they hope to demonstrate their belief that God’s redemption of humanity is powerful and complete by nurturing many facets of refugees’ lives – anything from helping adults with English and children with homework to driving kids to drama camps.

Refugee Beads’ goals fit the Norths’ conviction that the arts are a way to understand and heal the whole person. The women not only meet twice a week to learn the art of jewelry-making, but they also eat lunch together and often hike nearby Stone Mountain to continue spending time together.”Refugee Beads is a really encouraging community,” says North.

While jewelry-making sessions sound like a nurturing time – and, honestly, a whole lot of fun – North has pragmatic goals. She hopes to train women in the nuts and bolts of small business management. Selling jewelry allows them to supplement the income they earn working nights at a chicken factory nearly an hour from their homes. Soon, North hopes they will be able to give up this grueling labor.

Photo: Ruth Ann North

While there are many refugees North cares for and cares about in Atlanta, she pours her energy into these six women – refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Egypt, and Sudan – because they are all leaders among their people groups, and will be able to start their own businesses, support themselves, and train their communities in the art of jewelry-making. North hopes that in training and mentoring these women, she is starting a chain reaction.She wants to help them to be self-sufficient, since at this point, it is still daunting for them to walk into a store and communicate what they will need to buy.She hopes to remain a mentor even after they begin their own businesses.

When the women sell their handiwork, the Village Gatherings become a rich, communal experience.About once a month, North has been facilitating Village Gatherings wherever the women are invited. It might be someone’s church group, neighborhood, or work group (whatever the Americans consider their village, says North).These gatherings are one of the main opportunities for the refugees to sell their jewelry, but more than that, they are a chance for people to spend time together.

Realizing that “these women are such a gift to the American church,” North sees these gatherings as a way to connect cultures. Americans have so much to give the refugees – financial assistance, English practice, driving lessons, computer literacy – and she watches as giving flows in both directions. It is presumptuous, North insists, to think that if we are comfortable Americans, we have so much more to give. If anyone comes to a Village Gathering expecting to feel like the generous one, she’s in for a paradigm shift. The refugees bring meals they may have spent five hours cooking, sing in their native languages, pray for the Americans and ask the Americans to pray for them, and tell their stories. The value of these connections has been evident in both emotional and practical ways.Once, when a member of Refugee Beads asked a Village Gathering to pray for her sick child, the American women connected her with a clinic where her child was cared for.

Sharing stories is one way that the connection is particularly symbiotic.The refugees are relieved to tell their stories and be understood, and North listens as they add details and complexity to stories as their English improves. She realizes that there are so many facets of these women’s stories that she doesn’t know, and it may take a decade before the women can articulate the story completely. But for right now, “they need someone to hear this story,” says North. On the other end, listening to these stories allows Americans to learn what people around the world are facing, to step out of their own world and experience someone else’s story.

The first Village Gathering.
Photo: Charlene Hines

“We See Many Healing Power”

What are the stories these women share? The story of Purna, a Bhutanese member of Refugee Beads, is one example. Purna spent 17 years in a Nepali refugee camp.When she was quite young, the Southern Bhutanese, who were subsistence farmers, were forced to migrate, but not before some 2,000 were tortured, says the site They found relative safety, though not a warm welcome, in Nepal, as the refugee population climbed to 105,000 by 2007. The Nepali government did not allow the Bhutanese to work outside the camps. Most days, says North, they ate less than what most Americans would feed their house cats.

Though Purna’s family faced hardship there, she also experienced something that many refugees have seen in their camps.Fellow Refugee Beads member Juli, of Burma, put it this way: “We see many healing power.” “Healing power” may fall beyond the limits of what many American Christians believe God will do, and yet Christian refugees insist on what they have seen.Purna experienced the healing of her sister, who suffered violent seizures.

It happened like this. Purna’s family required her to stay at home to watch her sister. This meant that her brother was the one to leave his Hindu family each day and walk miles away to visit a Christian pastor. Speaking with the pastor, Purna’s brother became convinced that God could heal their sister. “Let me ask the pastor to pray,” he said, and urged the pastor to visit their home. Though the family was skeptical, after the pastor’s visit and prayers, her sister gradually healed, and her whole family began to believe.

When Purna was 25, she said goodbye to her parents, doubting she would ever see them again, because when refugees are placed in other countries, there is more emphasis on getting them out than on keeping families intact.

Photo: Ruth Ann North

Symbolically Small

Contemplating the stories of refugees, it is easy to view any actions an ordinary person might take as tiny, a drop in the bucket. Perhaps it can be seen as symbolic, then, that the refugees sell something as intricate as daisy-patterned barrettes, made with beads nearly as small as flower seeds. The actions required to make this would be delicate and small, yet in a wooden bowl on a table at a Village Gathering, joined with other beadwork and jewelry, this small flower means that hope continues to bloom.

Refugee Beads jewelry is available online at, in Chicago at Novum Shop, and in Atlanta at the Atlantic Station Market. Want to get even more involved? Become a fan of Refugee Beads on Facebook, or contact Ruth Ann North ( to host a Village Gathering or send beads and other supplies.

photo by:

Cains & Abels Sing Their Heads Off

Two hundred people fill a sparsely furnished sanctuary, singing at the top of their lungs. They are untrained singers with plenty of vocal eccentricities. No instruments give the right key or take the edge off the voices’ peculiarities. Stumbling upon a scenario like this would make many people flee for the exits. And, knowing that the lead singer of Chicago-based indie band Cains & Abels had grown up in this tradition, I thought of the torturous a capella as an experience he would have had to overcome to get on with his musical life. Far from it, he told me. David Sampson, Cains & Abels’ front man, considers the unaccompanied hymn-singing foundational to his music making. In fact, these experiences have woven the ethos and sound of Call Me Up, Cains & Abels’ first full-length album.

Sampson grew up Plymouth Brethren. For this denomination, a capella singing was a symbol of the way members craved direct, simple communion with God. “You could sing your head off,” Sampson recalls. You were purely accepted and simply free to participate. “Obviously, sometimes it could get weird, with nobody in a church who officially knew anything about music. We could end up singing really really slow, or sometimes we could lose pitch at every verse and end up singing in a different key. Overall, though, I think the way we sang was very honest and direct,” he reflects.

“I actually like to think about it as kind of punk rock. Like Beat Happening. You should have heard how some of these people sang. This one old guy would start all of the singing. Someone would suggest a hymn to sing, and then he would start it off. Sometimes nobody knew the tunes, so he would just make something up on the spot. It was amazing. He had a loud voice. You could hear it out in the parking lot. If a note was too high for him to hit, he would go for it anyway.”

The authenticity of those voices is still in David Sampson’s head when he makes music. “I remember being young and figuring out from those people how to use my voice in that way,” he says, adding that the Brethren style influences the harmonies he seeks. Authenticity is important to the whole band – they proudly use words like “pained” and “raw” when they describe the music, and their MySpace page proclaims, “We are trying to make the most real and honest music we can.”

Josh Ippel
Photo: David Sampson

Call Me Up doesn’t sound much like church music – it is layered, folk-infused rock music with lots of reverb and instrumental solos (think Neil Young & Crazy Horse).Nevertheless, the honesty and simplicity of the Brethren style are evident lyrically and musically throughout Call Me Up.

The album builds to moments where sound practically swallows you. Jonathan Dawe and Michelle Vondiziano’s background vocals are soothing and pretty, like a lullaby from another room, and Josh Ippel’s guitar is eerie, ringing thick with distortion.These blend with Vondiziano’s cello and keys, the primal sound of Dawe’s drums, and Sampson’s bass to form lush, engulfing instrumentation.It feels oddly similar to how Sampson describes church conferences as a kid, where a thousand people filled a rented high school auditorium and sang hymns a capella.”The silence in the moment right after the last note was an amazing moment. It was like the trough of a wave. You could hear a creaking chair in the corner in a place where a second earlier, you couldn’t even talk to your neighbor.”

Sampson’s voice rides on these waves of backing vocals and instrumentation, a voice that hits the emotions of the song perfectly, without requiring itself to hit a perfect pitch.(Of course, isn’t this what the folk tradition is all about? It reminds me of when Bob Dylan goes all out on The Rolling Thunder Revue, or when Will Oldham sings “Madeleine-Mary.”) “I’m not trying to sing in a traditionally beautiful way,” says Sampson. “I hope that the way I’m singing now has the most in common with the voice I used when I was five to sing the alphabet.”The result is a “super-acquired taste,” Sampson admits, but it has power to grab its listeners.Jonathan Dawe confesses to singing the tunes in his head before realizing they’re Cains & Abels songs. “It’s got it’s own charm,” he says.

Jonathan Dawe
Photo: David Sampson

Seeking to make honest music, Cains & Abels embrace both harshness and beauty.Visceral, image-driven lyrics, reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel’s physicality, combine with memorable melodies. Michelle Vondiziano says she often forgets she’s harmonizing to disturbing lyrics, because she is so focused on creating beautiful harmonies.

Take these lyrics from “Metal in my Mouth”:

I shoved my hand into a crack in the road

And let cars and trucks roll over my body

I tore a piece of skin off of my finger tip

And gave it to a squirrel to take to her.

Or this imagery from “Killed By Birds”:

For the stone to be thrown

For the bone to be lodged in my soft neck

Each time I pull back the skin

I find the feathers within…

Killed, killed by birds

Killed killed by lady birds

If the lyrics seem violent, it is because the band is trying to communicate something about intimacy. Intimacy is the Rosetta Stone for this album, making lyrics like “lay a hand on my hand” and “I’d dive into a fire if it lit up the phone in my pocket” come together into what Sampson describes as “a big fat universal plea.”

Reaching out, to anyone at all, is a theme throughout Call Me Up. The startling lyric about tearing off skin is actually about prayer, about just wanting to be able to give a piece of yourself to God and know that it got there.The album’s title is also a reference to intimacy.”Call Me Up” refers to what Sampson wanted most in 2006, when a relationship was ending. “I wanted to send that to the universe.”

There are times in the album when pain is quenched, when an answer comes:

And you can never be alone

You are loved by me

And I cling to your heart

I cling to your heart.

Michelle Vondiziano
Photo: David Sampson

Interestingly, Vondiziano singles out this song, “Never Be Alone,” as one of the album’s most musically pained and raw. This makes sense, because harshness and beauty become a push and pull within Call Me Up, and the album reverberates between extremes.The dichotomies are not by accident, because even the band’s name describes a dichotomy.It describes the band’s belief that each person is literally a Cain and an Abel simultaneously: both a cruel, rebellious person and a kind, generous person.

All along the spectrum, beauty slips in. It’s a haunting, engulfing beauty that, because it grows from painful authenticity, avoids anything saccharine. Interestingly, that’s just what happened in Brethren church services, too. “They weren’t bringing beauty to the services in an intentional way,” says Sampson, “but beauty was able to slip in through the cracks.”

Because they have pursued authenticity and achieved a rare kind of beauty, Cains & Abels’ Call Me Up is well worth checking out.Call Me Up is available May 19 through iTunes, States Rights Records, and Southern Records.

Of Public Transit and Human Nature

Photo: Wally Gobetz.

“Shoot,” I mutter, looking at the clock on my computer. It’s 4:30 p.m. in Oak Park, Illinois where I’ve just finished teaching, and that slates me for a 5:15 transfer to the Brown Line train in the Chicago Loop. Which means I won’t get a seat. Which means I’ll be shoved into a space more precariously crammed than my closet. Which means that I will be practically hugging about five other commuters for 20 minutes, saying “sorry” at least a half-dozen times as I lurch into them on our journey. I often wonder why people willingly submit to conditions that might otherwise be a human rights violation.

I guess you’d have to be a sicko to say you liked being so close to other people, but I do have to wonder why I find it quite so obnoxious and awkward. I mean, on other occasions, wouldn’t I claim that I love my fellow humans? Don’t I celebrate the faith that claims God became a human not too different than the guy chewing gum in my ear? Public transportation has a way of making the abstract concrete.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the CTA is the United States’ second largest web of public transit. Each day, says the Tribune, the CTA gives 1.6 million rides – 500,000 on the trains alone. A crowded train car in this system is kind of like a laboratory. Throw something interesting into the mix – say, a pigeon flapping around inside a train car – and you can marvel at the individuality of each person’s response.

In three years of regularly riding Chicago Transit Authority trains, I’ve learned that the CTA can illuminate a lot about human nature. I’ve learned that people will give a fifty dollar bill to a stranger if he has a slab of wood, three cups, and one pea.I’ve learned that different colored plastic prayer cloths are purportedly good for different kinds of illness.But sometimes this clunking laboratory of human experience teaches bigger lessons.

Contentment is Transferable

It was an early morning, and I opened the station door for a man with crutches and one leg, walked beside him on the stairs, lost track of where he was, and then ended up boarding the same car. I sat diagonally across from him while he stacked his crutches on the seat beside him. He placed a plastic cooler on the floor by his one foot. I smiled at this man in his paint-splattered sweatshirt, a smile both wistful and bumbling.

He smiled back at me.”It’s hard having three legs,” he told me. I laughed, and smiled some more. The message was clear: he didn’t have less than me, he had more.For the rest of the day, I kept remembering the short, black-haired man with his lunchbox by his foot and his crutches on the seat, and it was like somehow his words had multiplied the things I had: I felt like I had more of the things I loved, more appreciation for my home, more love to give my friends.

During the months surrounding that encounter, my morning rush-hour commute would frequently land me on “The Blessed Train” – a Red Line run operated by a cheery driver many Chicagoans appreciate. “Good morning,” he would say. “All aboard the Blessed Train. The Blessed Train is the best train.”He had a hearty voice that boomed over the speakers, and his appreciation of his work let me recalibrate.It became the omen of a good day ahead.

Photo: Lee Bey

“Bad” Trains Offer Impromptu Community

I’ve moved since then, and instead of the Blessed Train, I ride the Green Line, a line of track with a bad reputation. The second time I rode the Green Line, a friend told me a girl had been stabbed right on the train.Also, the Green Line is not the site of the only CTA disaster, but its operator had one of the most outrageous responses. When a Green Line derailed last year, the operator ordered everyone to stand on one side of the cars so the train wouldn’t plunge off the elevated track. Despite the dangers and past catastrophes, the Green Line is one of my favorite to ride (in the daytime).

The thing is, people talk to each other on the “bad” trains, and ignore each other on the “good” trains (like the Brown Line, which runs northwest from the loop through wealthier neighborhoods). For instance, a few months ago I was reading Gregory Wolfe’s The New Religious Humanists just as the Green Line rolled away from the station, and someone asked me, “Hey, is that a good book?” Then it was, “Where’d you get that?” which eventually led to another scrutiny of the title and the sigh, “Man, I should get myself to church.”

This brief exchange did not pressure me to keep talking; it was merely a pleasant way for both of us to begin the trek home. When people talk to me on the Green Line, the feeling is not that someone is flirting, or getting ready to follow me home, or scam me (okay, well, except for the guy hawking prayer-cloths). Instead, the feeling is that, by boarding this train, I am now part of an impromptu community.

We Aren’t Easily Threatened

It’s the mantra of CTA riding: “If you see someone acting suspiciously, please inform CTA personnel immediately.” The thing is, if we took that mantra seriously, we’d be on the intercom every five minutes or so. There’s always someone talking to himself in the corner, or looking protective of some oddly-shaped package, or glaring at us unnervingly. But I was amazed the other day at just how much suspicious or even aggressive behavior people will witness unperturbed.

I was riding the Brown Line (that’s right – the “safe” one), and from my vantage point it looked as though someone was lying down in the aisle. I could only see the tips of battered white sneakers sticking out from behind the metal dividers by the doors. I whispered to the guy next to me, “Is that person okay?”

“I think so,” he responded, no doubt pegging me as a tourist, “though you never know with people these days.”

When I leaned over to look more closely, I knew why he wasn’t as concerned as I was.The man wasn’t lying in the aisle. He was just sitting on the floor with his back against one of the dividers. Odd enough, though. He stayed like this for a few minutes, mumbling to himself, then hiked himself up and paced the aisles, glaring at everyone and still muttering.His eyes were sinister and his hair was wild.He paced right out one of the emergency doors and stood between the cars, wild hair blowing, like he was on the boardwalk enjoying the ocean breeze. After a few minutes, he came back to my car and continued pacing. As we neared the Loop, I heard what sounded like a muffled explosion. The guy had taken out an Aquafina bottle and was slamming it against the divider, muttering louder and looking at us like we had all been his tormentors since childhood.

To me, what was even stranger than this guy’s behavior was that every passenger but me seemed oblivious. They kept reading. They kept their earbuds in. They hardly glanced at this guy or each other. As for me, I decided I wasn’t going to wait for the guy’s next move, so I followed another CTA mantra: “Move to the next car if your immediate safety is threatened.”

Reflecting on it, I suppose the passengers’ response wasn’t abnormal. It’s already taken a whole lot of trust just to live in a city, because, as Jane Jacobs has pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a city is a place where strangers live very close together, most of them bargaining not to hurt each other. Urban existence means that we have given each other a generous dose of trust. It’s not the sort of trust where we’re making eye-contact and talking to each other all the time, but it’s the kind of trust that it takes to have the same entryway key as five other strangers, or where we’re hopping into a vehicle a stranger (be it a cab driver, bus driver, or train operator) is driving. In some cases, though, maybe this daily trust means our danger sensors are corroded.

CTA Stories

Another thing I’ve noticed in my three years here is that Chicagoans love CTA stories. When the RedEye version of the Tribune has a column about the CTA, emails to the editor pour in.The Decider section of The Onion ran a series on what it’s like to ride certain lines of the CTA round trip. There are whole blogs dedicated to sightings on the CTA and rants about it.

Whether ranting or celebrating, chances are that part of the draw of public transit stories is that there are unusual things to be learned about human nature when we’re all crammed together. The quirks, threats, or homilies in motion that we notice on the train are merely the quick emergence of a million stories of the people riding packed together above Chicago.

Midway through a
Mike Rose Semester

Photo by Alexandre Laurin

Rita, a student of mine, came to my office last week to discuss an upcoming paper. “How’s your research going?” I asked.

“I am a bad writer,” she said.

At the start of the semester, Rita wrote an essay describing the shame she felt whenever she sat down at the computer. Sentences conspired to reinforce her feelings of inadequacy. When she asked people to help her, they labeled her a “bad writer.”

Rita spoke Spanish with nearly everyone she cared about, yet the page made her push her fluidly-dancing ideas into the boring English sentences she knew were the “right” structure. When she wrote informal assignments – letters to a friend in the class – she created scenes where life “got out of control like a car in the snow” and a drunken man’s expression changed like “flipping channels on the television.”

I don’t know what you’re thinking at this point, but this sounds like an excellent writer to me.

This is why Mike Rose matters so much to me. Rose, an award-winning author and professor at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, argues that people who have been shut out of education or labeled as remedial have vast knowledge that educational structures don’t tap. He urges educators to value thought processes that academia typically does not embrace, and to see that even error reveals learning.

Coming from a blue-collar background, Rose esteems the intelligence that he saw growing up. On his blog, Rose says:

I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work.

His mother, a lifelong waitress, saw restaurants as “laborator(ies) of human relations.” Anyone who has been a server can concur that waiting tables means reading social cues from other workers and customers while keeping your own emotions in check. This combination of perceptiveness and self-regulation is literally called emotional labor. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” Rose’s mother always said, “that you don’t learn something.”

Since Rose values the intelligence needed in work dubbed non-intellectual, he argues for the potential of students who struggle in higher education.

In his classic, Lives on the Boundary, he describes his own education in south Los Angeles, where the school switched his files with another kid named Rose, and sent him to the lowest-level classes for his first two years of high school. His biology teacher discovered the error, and from then on, teachers pushed him at every step of the way: a teacher who had “found a little school” in south L.A. and wanted to “teach his heart out,” a professor who invented classes just so Rose and his friends could “read and write a lot under the close supervision of a faculty member,” professors who gave him “a directory of key names and notions” in their disciplines. Teachers carried heavier loads just so one or two students could succeed.

Rose reflects:

We live, in America, with so many platitudes about motivation and self-reliance and individualism – and myths spun from them, like those of Horatio Alger – that we find it hard to accept the fact that they are serious nonsense.

Living in south L.A. or Chicago’s south side or “any one of hundreds of other depressed communities,” he says, will require “support and guidance at many, many points along the way.”

But Rose also mentions that many kids from depressed communities have learned to “daydream . . . to avoid inadequacy” or to “reject the confusion and frustration [of grasping complex ideas] by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe.”

This makes me think motivation has to be part of achievement, too. Sometimes a teacher catches students when they are still openly motivated. When I asked Rita if she’d like a tutor, she said, “Yes! I want to get better!” But sometimes the right chemistry of individual motivation and teacher prodding isn’t there yet; or, maybe when I’ve been at it longer, I’ll learn to recognize it better.

For Rose, the alchemy was there when it needed to be, and if this much was given to him, he knew he would need to teach his heart out, too. In Lives on the Boundary, a gripping blend of memoir and analysis, he explains how he began to cultivate a love of language in his students, and also began to teach students how to “pick the academic lock.” Teaching veterans who had just returned from the service, he realized that so-called good students have certain ways of thinking and articulating, while other students become marginalized because they haven’t learned basic tools of academic thought: summarizing, classifying, comparing and analyzing. He designed his course for the veterans around these tools of thought.

Later, tutoring at UCLA, he discovered that error reveals learning. He tutored a woman named Suzette who kept writing in fragments because she wanted to vary her sentences. She didn’t want to keep starting sentences with “‘She . . . she . . . she . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . ” she said, “It doesn’t sound very intelligent.” Suzette was not making grammatical blunders – at least, not just – she was trying to find a more intellectual voice.

Rose’s pedagogy urges what I’ve been hearing again and again as I’ve taught a sophomore ethics course this semester – valuing the other. For Rose, it means valuing a student’s individuality. It means holding the carefully-planned assignment a little more loosely when a student offers an idea that lets her build on her knowledge. It means seeing error as an opportunity for progress. It means understanding the gaps in a student’s academic repertoire and figuring out how his experience, or some extra teaching, can fill those gaps.

Mike Rose expresses an ethic of care, directly wanting the good of “the other,” and as a model of this ethic, Rose is an exemplar for more than just teachers. Anyone who seeks to understand another person’s needs could use Rose as a model, particularly in their day-to-day vocation.

Teaching one’s heart out is just one way of living life to the fullest, breaking through a self-centered outlook, and living a life that centers on other people’s needs.

Quotations are from:

Rose, Mike. “The Intelligence of a Waitress in Motion.” Weblog post. Mike Rose’s Blog. 22 Aug 2008. <>

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. 1989. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Free Bubble Wrap,
and Other Joys of Urban Simplicity

Anyone who has ever had a dog and a skunk on her property at the same time, loaded hay into a loft in July, or contemplated the best way to catch a horse that just took off through the woods knows that rural life has its challenges. While cities provide their own complications, it’s time to set the record straight.

Our cultural imagination has us thinking the country life is the good and simple life. But it’s hardly the only simple life. The city has vast potential to provide an uncomplicated way of life – much more potential than it gets credit for.

“Living in the city is the simple life, when the city’s potential is maximized,” says Aaron Opalka, who has lived in Albany, New York for two and a half years. “One with a rural mindset might argue that the density, chaos and noise of the city are antithetical to the simple life. But my vision is one that permits walking or public transit to most, if not all, daily requirements.”

On his lunch break, Aaron can walk to the bank, retrieve his dry-cleaning, go to the barber shop, stop at the pharmacy, get a bite to eat, or even grab a new shirt and tie. “Naturally, not all at once. But the idea is I can walk to each of those things in five minutes. Think about the sprawling suburbs and all the time and resources wasted to accomplish each one of these errands.”

This is part of Kim Howe’s definition of the simple life, too. To Kim, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago’s lower west side, the simple life means “few intermediaries between me and the things I need.” Kim’s vision includes growing her own food, someday, and having “about seven possessions.” She does own more than that, but her walls display artwork from friends, and much of what she and her husband Jeremy own has been found, not bought.

Nicole Miano, who lives in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, points out that the nature of the city motivates people to avoid consumerism. “Since things are so concentrated,” says Nicole, “it motivates you to make sure you are reusing.”

Implementing some aspects of this vision will come naturally, because, as Aaron argues, the city is the simple life. But some of this simplicity means knowing how to find what you need and being willing to capitalize on what you find.

Ways to Simplify

In Chicago, most people use public transit. Though most Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with the construction-burdened and disaster-prone CTA,we find that for the most part, it makes life easier. Jeremy Howe appreciates that he can do something else while on the train – reading, or listening to his iPod. “I like my life better for that,” he says. Getting a little farther in a book or getting a paper drafted for work or school means there’s less work to bring home, and listening to music, reading The Onion, or even getting the chance to stare at a sunset without distraction might mean that riding public transit lets us relax more than driving would have.

Then again, riding the L isn’t convenient for all Chicagoans, since there are many underserved neighborhoods without any lines close by. Nicole Miano, for instance, cannot walk to the L from her home in Chicago’s west side. And in other cities, riding public transit could mean that you don’t fit in with your demographic. Using Albany’s buses, for instance,isn’t considered normal behavior for a young professional. The feeling, says Aaron, is “why would a young professional climb aboard those rolling asylums?” Aaron, who scrapped his vehicle almost a year ago, has seen single-passenger cars drive by with their occupants gaping at him unabashedly. Recently, when gas reached $4 a gallon, he noticed more young professionals joining him.

Usingpublic transitrather thancars is one of the most significant paths to urban simplicity, but the proximity of shops, restaurants and jobs encourages other modes of mobility. Nicole “would never bike in the suburbs,” where she grew up, but she often bikes in Chicago.

When other wheels are necessary, it’s easy to rent cars in the city. Zipcars and Chicago-based I-Go cars are an excellent deal compared to the cost of parking, insurance, maintenance, city stickers, and the enormous frustration of finding parking, shoveling snow, and bickering with your neighbors about why they moved the lawnchair you used to save your spot.

Another key to urban simplicity is being willing to take what you find. This means using nearby resources. It means buying clothes at theneighborhoodthrift shop instead of the mall out in the suburbs, or grabbing a few needed items at the corner store instead of driving to the supermarket, where you’ll face the temptation to fill your cart. It means signing up for yoga at the park district for freeinstead of $50 for four weeks at the trendy place down the street.

Kim Howe advocates a paradigm shift when it comes to the urban simple life. The city “provides a lot of free shit,” she says, but you have to change your thinking before you’ll accept a lot of it. Instead of shopping, which she says means “I need this; I will buy this thing,” you’ll have to take things as they come. Flexibility is an avenue to simplicity.

Kim was able to live on a half-time salary after college and spent time gleaning and networking her way into many comforts and pastimes. She has found free entertainment by ushering, and she’s been known to scope out suburban trash days to find furniture and sometimes bubble wrap to decorate dorm elevators and relish some very confused looks. “I guess you could think of that as ‘simple entertainment,'” says Kim. (I should add a bed bug warning here, just in case your city is in the throes of an infestation: glean carefully! Now, back to the joys of city life . . .)

Kim also discovered that Chicago has a paint depository, where she could get free paint. “I needed free paint, so I looked it up!”

Community Supported Agriculture provides another way to enjoy taking things as they come. Nearby farms offer “produce subscriptions,” where people can buy a share in the farm and receive a weekly basket of produce during the growing season. Subscribers can also buy cheese, meat, and egg shares and have these delivered to a nearby pick up spot along with the veggies. Catherine MacRae Knox of the Lincoln Square neighborhood on Chicago’s north side is thinking about joining a CSA. She cautions that one of the challenges is that you may end up with an awful lot of, say, radishes or kale, and will have to be creative, but she is excited at the thought of fresh vegetables for 20 weeks.

If you can’t just take your groceries as they come, but still want to ditch the car and shopping cart, companies such as Peapod and FreshDirect offer grocery delivery in many cities. It’s a good way to avoid impulse buying, and some companies accept manufacturer’s coupons and provide their own, too.

What the City Can’t Give

City life certainly has its problems, and the discussion of all the merits above focuses on what Nicole Miano calls “our age, white person existence,” a twenty- or thirty-something’s voluntary paradise. For those in marginal neighborhoods (beyond the reach of grocery delivery servies, car-sharing and even most public transportation), city life may not be easy, working one job may not cut it, and simplicity may not be so voluntary. We need to keep this in mind; voluntary simplicity is a luxury in its own way, and social justice should be a motivation for any downsizing we do.

But even when we embrace simplicity of our own accord, complications arise. One such complication is that it is hard to leave the city.Erik Chubb, who lives in Lincoln Square, regrets that it is really hard to get out “to the quiet wilderness.” Aaron also points out the limits of mobility. “By its very nature, public transportation is not tailored to any one person’s schedule.”

The cost of living and limits of space are also complicated aspects of city life. They mean that in many ways, simplicity is a requirement. I’d still argue that it’s a freeing requirement. I daydream about having a counter wider than a dictionary, but I like that we don’t have room for an entertainment center. There’s simply a limit to what you can acquire in the city, and that’s freeing. “In the city,” says Erik, “I don’t have to fill a big house with fancy stuff. I don’t need a fancy car.”

Sometimes, though, space issues mean that you really can’t live as simply as you want to. Kim was foiled when she tried to realize her dream of growing her own food. “We got one tomato and six green beans. We didn’t eat them because we were so proud of them.”

City life may have its difficulties, but a simple life is possible here, and seeing the skyline from a rooftop can be just as satisfying as diving into a mountain lake.

Virtuous Fun in the Films of Whit Stillman

Making the 12-hour road trip from Pennsylvania to Chicago, my friends and I listened to a year-end top ten list from NPR’s David Edelstein as we rolled past the industrial lights of Gary, Indiana. Edelstein noted “hip cynicism, even nihilism,” in 2008’s movies, citing The Dark Knight as a prime example.

I’ll tell you candidly – I love dark, cynical, yes, even nihilistic films.The macabre side of human experience is fascinating, and there has been a strong run of artistic, bleak films lately.I propose, however, that it’s equally important to examine another side of life: experiences of virtue. Whit Stillman’s three films Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and Last Days of Disco (1998) show virtue as fun, not fusty.

Whit Stillman’s comedies, unofficially considered a trilogy, focus on upper-class folk. The trilogy begins with Metropolitan.Committed socialist Tom Townsend happens into Manhattan’s debutante season.He is welcomed into the inner circle, and finds a far nicer group of people than he imagined. In the inner circle, we meet characters so layered and intriguing that we understand and like them better the more we watch these films.

The “urban haute bourgeoisie” or “Uhbs,” as Charlie Black names his social class in Metropolitan, are shown in various life stages throughout the trilogy, and in each, Stillman explores and celebrates virtue.

Celebrating Virtue

In Metropolitan, Audrey Rouget “has a rare largeness of mind,” according to one admirer. She’s “good-looking, smart, charming, principled – it’s an unusual combination.” Indeed, it’s a combination you’d be most likely to find in a page from Jane Austen, but Audrey manages virtue without priggishness. She admits she hasn’t had much life experience, but she has focused a keen eye on all she has done. She wears her virtue with humility, forgiving Tom Townsend when he leaves her without an escort at a party, and befriending Cynthia, whom several characters have dismissed as a slut.

In the end, the virtuous heroine has two men who are not just interested in her, but who take a cab from Manhattan to Southampton, pull out a Derringer pistol and “rescue” her from the home of the film’s villain, Rick Von Sloneker. In a frenzy, Tom had convinced Charlie Black to make the trip, certain Von Sloneker would seduce her, but Tom failed to account for Audrey’s resolute character.

Last Days of Disco doesn’t focus on the same group of Uhbs, but a different group of friends and acquaintances at the next life stage. (Throughout the trilogy, characters from past movies make cameos, which is delightful in a Where’s Waldo way). They’ve moved out on their own in Manhattan, acquired their first jobs, and virtue is harder to come by.

Alice Kinnon has “something of the kindergarten teacher” about her, and her “virtue” at the start is more a blend of sweet awkwardness, snobbishness and inexperience. Seeking to shed her goody-goody image, Alice leaves the disco one night with Tom Platt, whom she knew from her college days, and in a comedic scene, slinks around his apartment dancing and uttering the nonsensical seduction, “There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck.” (Her friend Charlotte coached her about dropping the word “sexy” into her conversations. Her more successful version was, “There’s something really sexy about strobe lights.”)

Alice loses her virginity when she sleeps with Tom, and contracts herpes and gonorrhea. Later, she finds that virtue was what Tom was craving, though his hypocrisy is infuriating:

When I saw you that night, you were a vision. Not just of loveliness, but of . . . of . . . virtue, and sanity . . . What I was craving was the sort of sentient individual who would not abandon her intelligence to hop into bed with every guy she meets in a night club.

The virtue Stillman celebrates in this film is humility. Alongside a plot where the mighty are falling – an exclusive night club is meeting its doom – the girl who had it all together becomes an object of pity. A pharmacist hands Alice the antibiotics for the STDs and says, “Sorry,” while we hear Amazing Grace in the background. After her one-night stand with Tom, it seems Alice hit bottom and is making herself at home there. She mopes around her apartment and dates Des McGrath, the witty, cocaine-sniffing and womanizing nightclub manager.

But Alice’s humiliation soon leads to humility.She dates Josh, a kind and honorable guy the group has ridiculed because of his bipolar episodes.We hear them sharing intimate thoughts and see them walking slower when they are together, clearly savoring the company.Alice’s character attracts notice in her workplace, too.The publishing house notices her intelligence and cleverness and she is promoted to associate editor.

Others, who have been proud or hypocritical, do not fare so well. Tom faces the fact that he, a successful environmental lawyer, has “spread epidemiological pollution.”1 Charlotte, by far the haughtiest member of the group, loses both boyfriend and job.

In Barcelona, virtue doesn’t come easily, either. Ted Boynton, the protagonist, is caught in a bitter struggle to hold onto a legalistic substitute for religion and virtue. Ted’s cousin Fred, who knows Ted better than Ted knows himself – and is thus his critic – calls it like he sees it. “Cut out this Pollyanna-Little-Miss-Mary-Sunshine . . . crap. My God, you’re almost pathological. I’d like to wring your neck.” Ted has a list of rules that could span the English channel, and the moment when he is most free in expressing his religion comes when he dances around the room to Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” while holding a Bible. (This dancing disaster is reminiscent of Elaine’s “Little Kicks” in Seinfeld, but even funnier.)

Other than that, Ted’s “virtue” only leads to tension.He’s goodhearted and sincere, but he can’t keep the rules he sets for himself. Barcelona is a more tense film than Metropolitan or Last Days of Disco.Ted and Fred, whose quarrels date back to childhood, bicker throughout the first three-quarters of the film. When Ted and Fred aren’t bickering with each other, they are defending America from being seen as “facha” (fascist).

Much of the tension, both dramatic and comic, comes from Ted’s attempts at virtue, like when he decides he has a “real romantic-illusion problem” and will only date “terrific plain or homely women.” The tension comes when Aurora, a woman plain enough to attract his notice, doesn’t show up for their first date. When the beautiful Montserrat appears instead, he accidentally implies that he doesn’t think Aurora is pretty.

“But she’s beautiful – ” insists Montserrat.

“Um, physically?” Ted asks, showing that in his “virtuous” rejecting of romantic illusions, he’s really giving her far less credit than most people do.

Virtue doesn’t come easily, but it comes, as in Last Days of Disco, through humility. When Fred is shot and sent into a coma because he’s rumored to have CIA connections, Ted says in a voice over: “Even the disasters that strike those we are closest to only reach us filtered through our own colossal egotism.”

It’s here that Ted changes. He comes to realize much about himself. “I was beginning to suspect that my religious faith was largely bogus.” Ted devotes himself to caring for Fred, partly out of guilt, as he admits, but in caring for Fred, he is doing the real work of selfless living instead of struggling to keep a list of rules.

Virtue is the Mother of Invention?

Whit Stillman is like Tom Townsend, not just because his biography is somewhat parallel, but because he fits Audrey’s description of Tom: “He doesn’t say all the expected things.”

Stillman’s dialogue is ornate, substantive, and clever. Indeed, itmakes me think of the best conversations I’ve had in my life. They range from deep musings:

When you think to yourself . . . you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted . . I think this sense of being silently listened to with total comprehension . . . represents our innate belief in a supreme being.

To comic one-liners: “The Cha-Cha is no more ridiculous than life itself.”

To re-interpretations of pop culture, demonstrating, for instance, that children’s movies like Lady and the Tramp condition women to fall for jerks.

His references are fresh, too. Seriously, when was the last time you heard a movie reference something like Brook Farm? When the references are obscure, they are also instructive, placed in the dialogue for more than name-dropping.

Because Stillman praises convention and doesn’t shun virtue, there are more options open to him. It turns out looking at convention and virtue only through a perspective that disparages them can seriously limit your stock of references. Stillman’s characters can move from examining Jane Austen or War and Peace to analyzing The Graduate from the perspective of the make-out king. Stillman doesn’t feel the need for hip references; he simply explores his interests, and they are fascinating.

If praising virtue leads to creativity, this is good news for contemporary artists because it opens up more options for them. Stillman is proof that virtue doesn’t have to lead to canned narratives. Virtue in a world where it is largely misunderstood is fuel for drama, irony and a whole lot of cinematic fun.


(1) Lauren Weiner, “Whit Stillman’s restorative irony,” in Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman ed. Mark C. Henrie (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), 33.

All other quotes are from Stillman’s films.

The Courtyards of Rebirth:
Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, Part II

Right now, the allegory I most closely associate with Oliver Sacks‘s Awakenings comes from the moment in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy, Susan and Aslan come to a courtyard full of statues. Lucy cries out, “All those stone animals – and people, too! It’s – it’s like a museum!” Aslan breathes on the stone figures, and they change from colorless stone to colorful, moving – alive – figures:

For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back – then it spread – then the color seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper – then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair. (1)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Photo by Julie Diekmann. Used by permission.

I imagine the courtyard with tangles of ivy hanging down the walls, and in the open space, goldenrod, brambles, and tall grasses at least up to the statues’ waists. I imagine a similar overgrowth has overtaken the back wards of Mount Caramel chronic care hospital, which Sacks describes as an abyss of affliction. Instead of goldenrod, a stale yellow stench. Instead of ivy, long fingernails and whiskers. And statues everywhere.

The statues are post-encephalitic patients, the survivors of Encephalitis Lethargica and the subjects of Awakenings. They are frozen in odd positions in wheelchairs. Rose R. was frozen like someone in those roller coaster photos hawked at amusement parks – her head thrust back, her hands tight fists. Frances D.’s pose was like an elderly philosopher – her gaze was upward, beatific, one hand cupped and raised as if to emphasize a point.

And then, their color returned.Oliver Sacks treated them with L-DOPA, and slowly they began to speak, walk, reconnect with family members, dance, and work.

It is a real-life allegory, one not lost on Sacks (one gets the sense that not much is lost on him):

I want something of their lives, their presence, to be preserved and live for others, as exemplars of the human predicament and survival. This is the testimony, the only testimony, of a unique event – but one which may become an allegory for us all.

It does strike readers as an allegory, and it interweaves with other allegories; it’s impossible for me to write about Encephalitis Lethargica without thinking of stories I heard growing up. This bothers and intrigues me, and I want to explore why we crave metaphor, why I am quick to see allegories in Awakenings, and whether or not seeing real life as allegory is dangerous.

A Hopefully Not Too Somnolent Exploration of Metaphor

The metaphor of someone asleep for years who suddenly awakens is one of our cultural myths.Off the top of my head, I can think of Sleeping Beauty, Rip Van Winkle, Narnia, and that Mel Gibson movie Forever Young (which, okay, I watched probably 50 times in high school. I can probably recite whole scenes).

Why is this story represented in many different ways?

Metaphor is essential to our thinking. It’s how we get from everyday, concrete realities to things for which we may not have tangible proof.2 Imagine I’m trying to explain a forest to someone who has only seen the desert.I would begin with what the person knows.Cacti, maybe. We do the same with abstract or unseen realities.We look for temporal parallels to the eternal.

Because death bothers us, we constantly search for metaphors for death.My mother, seeking comfort after the death of both her mother and brother this past year, has been picturing death as a kind of birth.The way a baby resists birth because of the comfort and familiarity of the womb is also the way we want to cling to earth-life. I love this.

I’m guessing the same thing was going on with the Sleeping Beauty story. Isn’t this exactly what we want death to be?We want to wake up beautiful. We want to know we’ll still be ourselves.We want to be with people we love.When the powerful kiss of true love comes Sleeping Beauty’s way, she’s able to return to life, still pretty as a daisy, but now side by side with a man she loves.

If we are to see allegory in this fairy tale, we have to do the work of connecting the allegory to another narrative not explicitly given.3 When we think of people who have been asleep for decades waking up, we can see this as allegory, because sleep is so often a cultural metaphor for death.Sometimes it is sleep to the exclusion of waking, like the French Revolution’s credo, “death is eternal sleep,” which was meant to de-Christianize the republic.Or sleep as the preamble to waking, as when Jesus says about a dead girl, “she is sleeping.”

When I come to the nonfiction story of Awakenings, I can’t help but see it as an allegory, because the cultural narratives are already in place.Even though the stories are case studies, not morality plays, once factual narratives overlap with cultural narratives, allegory can be born.

Resurrectamine, St. Ignatius, and the Day to Day

Since Awakenings matches quite well with a few cultural narratives, there are several figurative ways to see the case studies. I’ll return to the story of Magda B. I discussed in the first installment.

For all those around her could see, Magda was dead – unable to speak or move. L-DOPA came along, and she was able to speak first in a monotone, then in a rich Viennese accent.She reconnected with her family, adapted to the drugs, and died peacefully, in her sleep.

“Dopamine is Resurrectamine,” said awakened patient Leonard L., and Magda’s case, indeed, seems like resurrection. To anyone passing through the dreary halls, Magda would have looked like a vegetable. wakened, she participates fully in all that life means.A gracious personality emerges.It reminds me of my minister’s oft-repeated words that God wants to make us more fully human.She is still fully herself when she dies and the case study ends.

Looking at the pictures of the post-encephalitic patients reminds me of another narrative. Platonic dualism, and St. Ignatius of Loyola‘s spiritual exercises telling us to see in our imaginations the “soul as a prisoner in this corruptible body.”4 Surely, this narrative seems plausible when we see people with personalities not dead only dormant, and they are held captive by their bodies – muscles that will not let them do all the things their souls long to do: speak or sing or clasp a relative’s hand.

I resist St. Ignatius’s picture of the captive soul because I don’t want to think of my body (its functions, limitations, sexuality, and many flaws) as an enemy I’ll soon win against.I want to see it as a gift.And it is important to see someone like Hester Y., who also views her imperfect body as a gift. She is able to ignore the tics that overtake her body. She sits in the eye of a storm, continuing to talk while the tics go on, appreciating what her body can do.She pays the tics no mind: they are strangers visiting a body she knows.As Sacks says, disease is not “a thing-in-itself, but parasitic on health and life and reality.”

Instead of advocating either of these narratives, Sacks most wants us to remember how to live. We, too, can experience a “return to one’s self . . . ‘rebirth,'” like the patients who are so eager to just talk to people around them, listen to music, take out their cobbler’s bench and return to their life’s work. The patients, he says, “show us the full quality – the zenith of real being (so rarely experienced by so many ‘healthy’ people); they show us what we have known – and almost forgotten.”

Hijacking Nonfiction?

My students at North Park University just read Awakenings. I asked them to fictionalize one of the case studies to draw attention to any allegorical aspects.Almost all of them had a very difficult time with that.It wasn’t just that I was asking them to perform a creative writing assignment that was fairly complex for freshmen.I may have been asking them to do something slightly immoral.

The case studies are human stories, and, yes they teach us.But what comes of seeing real live people as allegories?

If we approach nonfiction narratives – Awakenings, other nonfiction, the lives of people we hear about or read about in newspapers – and treat the allegory like the kernel of the story and discard, like a pistachio shell, the real lives of people, then I think we are definitely doing something dubious.

But seeing allegory in everyday lives may also make life something dually beautiful. Can we hold this in tension?While seeing allegory, can we remember to respect these lives?To appreciate them as we would appreciate a friend with whom we were having a late-night conversation, the debris of wine circling the bottoms of our glasses? Deriving wisdom from them, like we would listen and find meaning in the words of this friend? And yet also seeing a life as a story that extends far beyond that life, into eternal meanings?

We can do this. And if we read Awakenings we have to.The patient Leonard L. asks that we learn from him at the same time we appreciate him: “I am a living candle. I am consumed so that you may learn. New things will be seen in the light of my suffering.”

It is appropriate to tiptoe into the courtyards of suffering and rebirth and listen, watch, and learn.

1 Lewis, C.S., The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 1950. New York: Harper Collins, 1994: 167.

2 Crisp, Peter. “Allegory: conceptual metaphor in history.” Language & Literature 10, no. 1 (February 2001): 5. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2008): 5.

3 Crisp, 8.

4 Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. 1951. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2000: 22.

All other quotes are from Sacks, Oliver. Awakenings. 5th edition. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

What Ghosts Teach:
Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, Part I

Book available on

What could being asleep for fifty years, and then awakening, teach a person about life? You might tell me to Google Washington Irving or the Brothers Grimm and see what lessons they intended, but I am dead serious when I ask this question.

I ask it because in the early part of the 20th century, the disease Encephalitis Lethargica turned people into living statues for as long as Rip Van Winkle snoozed in the Catskills.

It was a Parkinsonian epidemic that killed nearly five million people by keeping them awake until they died or sending them into comas so deep nothing could rouse them. It kept a handful of survivors locked inside their bodies.

The survivors weren’t in comas, and they weren’t “vegetables.” The better metaphor is that they were ghosts. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Emily at the end of Our Town, they could watch life go by, but interaction was impossible. Although they could think, one patient described thoughts as if they were “a picture whipped out of its frame.”

They sat like ghosts in wheelchairs through the wars fought, depressions overcome, civil rights won, and leaders assassinated. And then, in 1969, neurologist Oliver Sacks treated a group of patients with L-DOPA, then an experimental drug. On a high dosage of the drug, these “ghosts” came to participate in life again, exhibiting not only mobility and speech, but also personalities that had, for fifty years, been reduced to shadows.

Sacks, their empathetic and uniquely perspicacious doctor, clearly had in mind questions of what it means to be human as he wrote, and this is one of the aspects that makes the case studies and reflections in his book, Awakenings, so compelling. Sacks has gained popular appeal by finding the human story in the neurological oddities he studies, in books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Migraine, and An Anthropologist on Mars. Indeed, he introduces readers to aspects of the human condition that are beyond the edges of what many people experience. Awakenings is by no means new; it was published in 1973 and is considered a classic, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already had the chance.

So, back to the original question. What can patients beyond the edges of commonplace experience teach us about being human? With a disease so peculiar and an author so perceptive, the lessons are legion. I’ll focus on just two.

Shout Back if You’re Listening

First, they teach that our yuckiest emotions are part of what makes us “awake.” Now, I know any good therapist could tell you that for a mere $25/week co-pay, but before you close the browser, consider the case study of Magda B. as an illustration of just how essential this is.

Other patients would react to their environments and shout out during extreme fits of Parkinsonism, but even when the hospital staff placed Magda next to a “mad, hostile dement,” who would curse, insult and even hit her, Mrs. B would sit placidly next to him, never registering the slightest agitation.

On small initial doses of L-DOPA, Magda still showed apathy. When she could first speak, she sounded like an automated phone system. When the dose was raised, the first signs of awakening Sacks noted were a distinct Viennese accent – far from a monotone – and anxiety. She was anxious that the drug was making her sleepless and nauseous. She had moved from a placid statue to a person invested in her own survival.

That sounds pretty sucky, eh? You wake up after fifty years and worry is one of your first emotions. But it’s part of the reason we were considered higher than rocks on the Great Chain of Being; acknowledging worry makes us alive.

After acknowledging anxiety, Magda continued to show rich, complex emotions. She was even able to mourn her husband who died only five years before she woke up.

Oliver Sacks says Magda was dropped “through a vacuum” from her mid-twenties to her sixties, and was still able to don with ease the “mantle of old age, ‘Grannie-hood.'” Likewise, even though she is dropped from numbed emotions to the need to express grief, she is able to make the move. She moves from stone-cold apathy to anxiety and mourning and finally to a graceful acceptance of herself and her lost years.

And what does she teach? She makes me wonder why the image of a woman in a wheelchair sitting next to an abusive psychotic and staring forward with utter tranquility is so close to what I expect of myself. I crave “unruffledness.” And where does it get me? In urban life, personal assaults on the dignity of people around me seldom register. In my personal life, I let questions of faith flicker in my mind for one second, then snuff them out.I would much rather pick up a book or get on Facebook than analyze why a conversation with my husband left us both feeling hurt. And I turn to stone. A woman who was only fully awake for a few years of her life has suddenly become my role model, because she learned to shout back.

Pitfalls of a Captive Audience

Second, when Magda embraces her new roles in life, one thing above all else supports her: her connection to people around her. She writes letters, catches up with her daughters, and entertains friends with her tales of her Viennese childhood. She has been inside herself far too long.

Rose R., a “Sleeping Beauty whose ‘awakening’ was unbearable to her,” showed a stark contrast to this. This patient, a flapper in the 1920’s, only wanted to talk about her memories when she awoke. After filling the ears of everyone around her, she asked for a tape recorder into which she could pour her memories of 1926. Soon, the tape recorder became her only audience, and indeed, her only friend. She would ask to be alone and talk to her tape recorder. She wouldn’t acknowledge anyone else.

In Magda’s case, talking to others was Dramamine for the lurching ride from the 20’s to the 60’s, since she had to catch up on decades in days. To Rose R., the medicine was a tape recorder. When she did not get outside herself, however, her body enclosed itself around her. It locked her in with overwhelming Parkinsonian tics that kept her “entranced” for the rest of her life.

To be fully awake, in this case, meant that Rose had to put the tape recorder away. It’s possible, when seeing Rose and Magda in stark contrast, that reconnecting with others may have helped Magda acclimate to a changed culture. Our daily acclimations are not like the ones Encephalitis Lethargica thrust on its patients, but they’re still rough. In light of this, what does true connection mean?

Why You Should Read the Book Even If You’ve Seen the Movie

Okay, so let’s say you saw the Robin Williams/Robert DeNiro Awakenings film from the 90’s. Why should you care about these case studies?

What struck me more than anything else when I re-watched the movie post-Sacks was its simplicity. It takes a story of human quirks, where each patient exhibits totally different symptoms during the epidemic and then shows a completely different course on L-DOPA, and homogenizes the patients to fit a classical film structure, complete with two love stories.

With the exception of Leonard (DeNiro), Robin Williams (the Dr. Sacks character) gives all the patients L-DOPA at the same time. In reality, Sacks was quite careful to evaluate patients on a case-by-case basis. In the film, they all wake up, they all start buzzing around the ward, and they all express fairly similar reactions of surprise, delight and loss. We watch Leonard’s descent into the tics that eventually overcame most of the patients in the book, and are assured that each patient is an individual who may react differently, but we aren’t shown their individuality. Granted, Robert DeNiro does an impeccable and moving job portraying Leonard’s character, especially when his tics take over. But the movie makes it seem like this is a simple disease, when in reality, it was, as Sacks wrote, “a Hydra with a thousand heads.”

As part of the simplicity, Hollywood sanitizes the case studies. There is very little drooling, there is no sweating; there are delusions, but no hallucinations. There is also no reference to masturbating. That’s right. One of the (many) reasons I scorn the love story between Leonard and a stroke-victim’s daughter is that in reality, Leonard was more like Crazy Uncle Teo in Fellini’s Amarcord, who, when his family briefly delivers him from a mental hospital, climbs up a tree and starts shouting, “I want a woman!” After years of being unable to express his sexuality, Leonard couldn’t make the graceful transition to having lunch with a woman at a cafeteria like director Penny Marshall wanted him to. Instead, he suggested that the hospital should send him a prostitute and masturbated for hours on end.

In Marshall’s sanitized version, mystery is lost to oversimplification, and the most fascinating truths are scrubbed away. If you want the truth of humans waking up after fifty years, a Hollywood formula doesn’t cut it. We’re much more intricate than that, and our complexity has much to teach.

All quotes are from Sacks, Oliver. Awakenings. 5th edition. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

One of Authenticity’s Last Great Sanctuaries?

Photo: Sean Talbot

It didn’t surprise me when Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement and host of the Uptown Poetry slam, told me that ministers sometimes “lurk in the shadows” of the Green Mill Lounge, a prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy, during the Sunday night poetry slam. When I first moved to Chicago, I, too, lurked in the flickering light cast by tabletop candles. I entered the Green Mill as hungrily as church and found fragments of meaning that sparked and floated down like ashes from a campfire.

There are few public spaces in which it is safe to be real, and this is a large reason the Uptown Poetry Slam draws crowds.

Perhaps this dearth of safe public spaces is a remnant of Victorian codes of etiquette that chided us not to “introduce politics, religion, or weighty topics for conversation when making calls.”1 While our age bristles at Victorian morals, this etiquette has made it tactless to be curious about others and difficult to broach “weighty topics.” It sanctions our resistance to vulnerability, and so, growing up and growing respectable become processes of boarding up the delicate aspects of one’s identity. Becoming accustomed to city life, too, is a process of letting less and less of one’s private self show on a face that pushes through crowds.

And so it’s rare to find a public space, much less an urban space, offering a sanctuary where people can reveal the selves that so many of us quarantine-brittle with unanswered questions, restless because of broken relationships. Revelation is what poetry slammers do in the Uptown Poetry Slam Sunday after Sunday.

Marc Smith yells, “Hey, turn that jukebox off!” or cues the band to a lull, and launches into an interactive shtick (beginning, more or less, with, “I’m Marc Smith,” met with a resounding, “So what?!!”). After that, performance poets step onto the stage with jazz musicians who will improvise along with the poems if poets want them to.

Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement.
Photo: Sean Talbot

The slammers dive right into pieces about rejected marriage proposals, questioned destinies, lost childhood and contemplated abortions. One poet read about the night he murdered his wife.2

It’s baffling. How can people stand in front of strangers and say things they could hardly stammer to a close friend?

“We all need public validation of who we are,” says Smith. “To speak in front of your fellow human beings is very important.” Performance poet Molly Meacham adds, “If you air a wound, it will heal.” In presenting poems that are personal, wounds are out in the open, and poets can say things the audience may feel but can’t yet put into words. Competing in the national slam, Meacham has experienced this. There is an instant communication, and an instant gratification as the poet sees his or her words grabbing the audience.

Meacham cautions against being too raw, however. “I was lucky enough to have a thick skin,” she says. Poets who don’t have a thick skin, or who gush emotion without crafting it, aren’t likely to survive the demands of frequent performance, where they are susceptible to critique.

“The stage is not therapy!” said slammer Robbie Q. one night after a sentimental performer left the stage one night. You have to purchase credibility, he told me. You have to get the audience to relate to you, with humor, for instance, “or by making fun of Marc.”

Points of Entry
• Finding a poetry slam near you may be as easy as visiting
• Read more about poetry slams at Wikipedia.

Poetry slams started in 1987 with honesty as a goal. Smith had found chemistry between poetry and acting. He decided poetry readings should no longer be what he calls “bogus affairs” controlled by the literary elite and leaving everyday people scratching their heads.

Early on, Chicago’s literati derided the slammers as “just a bunch of drunks in a tavern,” says Smith, but when he asked the audience their occupations around that time, he discovered a group of physicists sitting smack in the front row. At the time, turning poetry into a performance was taboo, but Smith wanted poetry to have the vibrancy that only acting could give it, and people from all walks of life came to crave it.

In the early days, he felt that slam was akin to folk art, where it’s not precision but honesty that defines art. “Slam is not about making stars,” Smith’s website affirms. “It’s about everybody all together in a room with their hair down and their feet up.”

It reminds me of sculptor Claes Oldenburg‘s credo that he is for an “art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top… an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.” Slam embroils itself with the everyday crap, and it uses whatever means necessary.

Poet Emily Rose at the Green Mill
Photo: Sean Talbot

There is no telling what a night at the slam will be like. It is poetry meets Vaudeville meets Gong Show meets, well . . .

“Is this like the Rocky Horror Picture Show?” one newcomer asks Marc as he makes the rounds to talk with members of the audience.

“Yeah, it’s like that.”

The first portion of the show is open mic. Anyone-amateur or pro-can walk in, meet Marc, and add his or her name to the list of performers. If it’s their first time reading in public, they’re dubbed a “virgin virgin,” which is often the only razzing they get from Marc, who may encourage the neophyte to join the slam competition, the third and final portion of the show, where slammers compete for a whole ten dollars. The middle section features a performer or group of performers-anyone from a local singer/songwriter, to a man who performs It’s A Wonderful Life in ten minutes, to a professional slam poet.

On any night at the slam, the audience can catch at least a few fragments of meaning. Fragments like these:

From the poet Stella, whose name Smith yells like he’s Stanley Kowalksi: “There is a river flowing backwards from death to life.”

Photo: Sean Talbot

From poet Tennessee Mary: “Our best laid plans are there for God’s amusement.”

From Smith, performing George Cabot Lodge: “This is the song of the wave, that died in the fullness of life.”

From poet Derek Brown: “In death, I’ll resemble more a pilot light than a man.”

On a night when every aspect is “on” – which is in itself a strange alchemy, since so little is planned – the present seems more palpable and immediate than usual, crammed full of meaning. Moments brim full of other moments in life. Lines of poems spark with the audience’s unanswered and unanswerable questions, their satisfying and ecstatic moments of life, fears and fumbles, and frenetic quests for meaning. I’ve experienced a few such nights there.

The night, for instance, back in my days of faithful slam attendance, when Smith started off with Carl Sandburg’s “Skyscraper“: “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” When Marc performs, he may walk through the audience, pat them on the back, whisper, shout, sing, bang out a few chords on the grand piano, raise his hands to the ceiling and gesture twinkling stars. The traditional podium of poetry readings must be side-stepped, the audience captivated with drama and interaction.

The night continued with professional slammer Derek Brown, who used phrases structured like a Hebrew psalm: “It was the dawn of weird, the morning of strange.” He told us he couldn’t explain “why I’m feeling God more in a pool hall than in a church.” Then in a crescendoing passage, he listed ordinary occurrences – a clumsy first kiss, a drunken night with friends – and after listing each, he took the tone of a priest offering benediction, saying, “holy” in rising momentum after each ordinary occurrence.

And so, the everyday people, the ministers, poets, actors, ex-cons, newsstand owners, teachers, physicists and hot dog vendors, gather in the candlelight, tapping along to the jazz beat, eyes reflecting the glow of the neon Green Mill sign on the stage, all looking for meaning, and on some nights, finding more than we can hold.

1 Hill, Thomas E., The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1994.

2 He tells us he spent many years in prison, where he met Chicago’s legendary “Killer Poet,” also once a Green Mill regular.

Mütter Museum’s Gruesome Grace

I am not the sort of person who flips through pictorial medical dictionaries to pass the time. I can’t believe sites like and MySpace post ads for toenail fungus medicine, and even if I scroll down before the toenail lifts like a trapdoor and the cartoon bug squirms out, I still feel queasy. This summer, though, my husband considered it serendipitous that we were traveling to Philadelphia right after we watched Errol Morris interview Gretchen Worden, the late curator of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

And so, I found myself browsing a collection of over 20,000 anatomical and medical objects, most of them from the nightmarish realm of pathological anatomy. The Mütter museum claims to tell stories about the human experience, and as I swallowed my squeamishness and faced specimens in jars, I realized the morbid collection resonates with Christian ideas of truth, goodness, and even beauty.

This singular museum began in 1858 when Thomas Dent Mütter, surgery professor at Jefferson Medical College, offered his personal collection to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The museum, located in Rittenhouse Square, exhibits 2,000 objects extracted from people’s throats, a wax model of an elderly Frenchwoman with a long, downward-curving horn growing from her forehead, a plaster cast of famous twins Chang and Eng who were conjoined at the sternum, and the blackened corpse of the “Soap Lady,” who was mummified as her body fat turned to soap around her.

In the galleries, the ravages of leprosy, syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer, birth defects, and many other diseases and abnormalities are behind glass, floating in jars, or cast in wax or plaster. They are unsettling and informative. Pre-Mütter, I had never heard of cutaneous tuberculosis and had no idea the disease could wreak such havoc on a human face-small, pervasive lesions, what look like large red burns, and noses melting away into masses of blood and scabs. I had never seen pictures of smallpox and had no idea that its lesions cover the entire surface of the skin, making faces look like rocks packed full of barnacles, making chests and arms look like a swarm of beetles, and leaving barely anything discernible as human skin.

Specimen after specimen, the galleries can become a bombardment. For me, the images did not arrange themselves into what the brochure had promised-stories about human meaning-until I saw a glimpse of beauty. On a high shelf, the bust of a striking young woman was displayed. Her statue could have been mistaken for an ancient Venus, with the same discreet, downward cast of her eyes and youthful softness of flesh captured in the plaster cast. She could have been mistaken as such, if not for one thing: a tumor the size of a grapefruit on one side of her neck.

It was in seeing this beauty so almost whole that the bombardment became a solid question: what did we do to ourselves in Eden, that we walk around so beautiful and so damaged? It is rare to see the effects of human brokenness all lined up in tidy, dust-free rows, carefully curated with expository tags. It is rare, and vital. This is the human story, behind glass, in its most extreme edges.

These ravages are extreme. But some of us have experienced them, and we must hold onto this. We are prone to hide these things. As a child will hide the smashed vase, we hide the way original sin has broken humanity. We build mental institutions thick and high; we incarcerate old age and deterioration. We recoil rather than face what Eden has done.

Is it because we know that even if our skin is unblemished and our bodies comfortable, this suffering is still our story, one of souls scabbed over, personalities riddled with pocks, psyches melting away? Augustine wrote that we carry within us the witness of our sin. Mütter’s specimens are synecdoche for a whole catastrophe.

We are all grotesques, Flannery O’Connor used to say, even though some of us may not realize it.[1] O’Connor believed that ours is an age “whose deafness requires the raised voice,” says Ralph C. Wood, “and whose blindness demands large and startling figures.”[2] Like a Flannery O’Connor story, the Mütter Museum shouts. It rakes up emotions. “People talk about being ‘grossed out,’ ‘appalled,'” Gretchen Worden told Errol Morris. “Whatever emotional reaction you have, that’s good.” [3]

This is a tour of the Fall, and seeing the effects of humanity’s sin calls for a response that is visceral, not just intellectual.

The Mütter Museum does, unselfconsciously, provide some respite from the bombardment. Looking closely at some of the faces and reading the stories that accompany some of the models shows that damage is not the whole tale.

Take, for instance, the dignity of the young girl shown in two black-and-white photographs in the Mütter collection. She supports herself on her hands, as if she is a gymnast maneuvering on the horse. She supports herself like this because she has no legs. And yet, even as she is being photographed, she looks peaceful, determined. She is a child, probably about ten years old, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, and yet in her concentration and the calm aura of the photograph she has assurance that some adults haven’t managed.

The landscape of the Fall is not just the landscape of despair but the landscape of redemption, one where we see “hideous beauty and beautiful deformity”-to borrow the phrase Bernard of Clairvaux used to describe the religious art of his day. [4]

Looking at the girl in the black-and-white photographs, “you don’t get the sense of any deformity,” Worden told Errol Morris. [5] Her carriage is graceful. Her spirit shows that there is grace in the abyss.

[1] Muller, Gilbert H. Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Grotesque. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972, 7.

[2] Wood, Ralph C. “Flannery O’Connor’s Witness to the Gospel of Life.” Modern Age Fall 2005: 321.

[3] Morris, Errol. “Smiling in a Jar.” Errol Morris’ First Person: The Complete Series. 60 min. MGM, 2005. DVD.

[4] Muller, 2.

[5] Morris.